The 2014 NFL season saw the Pittsburgh Steelers win their first division title in four years, but the AFC North titans were defeated in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a postseason game since the 2010 season, and they’ll need to make improvements in free agency and the draft, in order to contend for the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh has already made one significant move this offseason. The team parted ways with Dick LeBeau, who had been their defensive coordinator for a decade. Keith Butler takes over a unit that ranked 18th in points allowed, surrendering 30 points in their postseason defeat.
The Steelers were led to an 11-5 record by one of the best offenses in the NFL. Pittsburgh finished the year ranked seventh in points and second in total yards, and no quarterback threw for more yards than Ben Roethlisberger. Having led the team to three Super Bowls and continuing to put up impressive numbers, the quarterback is about to get a major payday.
With one year left on his deal, Roethlisberger and the Steelers are working on an extension. Because of the contracts that have been signed by quarterbacks in recent years, the veteran is likely to sign a nine-figure deal. In 2014, Roethlisberger set career highs with a 67.1 completion percentage, 4,952 passing yards and 32 touchdown passes.
Giving Roethlisberger a new contract will help give the Steelers some needed cap relief. With their current salaries, the team is projected to be close to $3 million over the salary cap. Pittsburgh will undoubtedly make a few cuts and restructure contracts to give them the ability to sign a few free agents.
It’s possible that the Steelers could get some cap relief because players choose to walk away from the game. Safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison are no guarantees to return in 2015. When the Steelers’ season ended, Polamalu said “time will tell” when asked if he played his final NFL game. At 37 years old, Harrison has said he doesn’t know if he’ll return for another season.
Polamalu signed a new contract last offseason, and while it helped their salary cap situation in 2014, the Steelers might be better off without the veteran next season. Polamalu has a cap number of $8.25 million in 2015, and he’s a different player than the one that was named the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year. Harrison was a solid contributor for Pittsburgh in 2014, getting 5.5 sacks in 11 games, but he wouldn’t come back for much more than the minimum salary.
The Steelers could also lose a mainstay of their defense for the last 12 seasons. Ike Taylor, who has played his entire career in Pittsburgh, is set to become a free agent. He only played five games in 2014, and hasn’t intercepted a pass since 2012. The defensive back might not be looking to go elsewhere, but he has said that he’d consider playing for LeBeau, who is now a coach with the Tennessee Titans.
Defensive end Jason Worilds and linebacker Arthur Moats are also set to hit free agency. Worilds made $9.75 million in 2014, delivering 7.5 sacks and 59 combined tackles, and the Steelers could keep him by using the transition tag, which would cost them around $11 million. Moats had four sacks in 2014 and made $795,000.
Most of the Steelers’ top offensive players are under contract for 2015. Darius Heyward-Bey is without a contract, but he was barely a contributor, catching three passes for 33 yards. Le’Veon Bell, who was one of the NFL’s most productive players in 2014, is not expected to play all 16 games in 2015. After being arrested last year, ESPN’s John Clayton reports that Bell will likely be suspended for two games.
Pittsburgh has the No.22 overall pick in the draft, and they are likely to select a defensive player, since the team has plenty of young talent on the offensive end. Antonio Brown is just 26 years old, while Bell is 22. Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant, who were Roethlisberger’s No.2 and No.3 receivers, are 24 and 23 years old, respectively.
If they lose Taylor and Polamalu, the Steelers could look for help in the secondary. The likes of Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest, Marcus Peters of Washington and Alabama’s Landon Collins could all be available. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Vic Beasley are also a possibility for Pittsburgh.
Unless they suffer a few major injuries, the Steelers are almost certain to be in the playoff hunt. Pittsburgh hasn’t finished below .500 since 2003.