NFL DRAFT NEEDS: AFC NORTH Ravens | Bengals | Browns OVERVIEW
The Steelers offseason thus far has been marred by controversy. For the second time in a year, franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual misconduct. Although the district attorney decided not to charge Roethlisberger, he still faces potential punishments from Commissioner Roger Goodell as well as the team, leaving the franchise in a state of uncertainty.
Former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes was also the topic of controversy. The troubled wide receiver was accused of throwing a glass in a night club that hit and injured a woman. Fed up with Holmes' off-field issues, the Steelers traded him to the New York Jets. Luckily, the emergence of Mike Wallace and the return of Antwaan Randle El made Holmes expendable, and Pittsburgh should be set to move on without him.
As is the usual case in Pittsburgh, the Steelers will rely on the draft to continue building the roster and bring the franchise back into Super Bowl contention. They will have 11 choices spread over every round of the draft, including four selections in the fifth-round. Pittsburgh currently holds picks 18, 52, 82, 116, 151, 155, 164, 166, 188, 225 and 242. The top priority for Mike Tomlin's team will be getting the defense back on track.
The identity of the Steelers franchise has always been a dominating defense, but the unit wasn't the same in 2009. They were stout against the run, but the secondary took a major step back and allowed too many big plays. Cornerback is an area of great concern. William Gay struggled and Ike Taylor was average at best. The team has hosted several potential candidates on visits including Brandon Ghee of Wake Forest, Nolan Carroll of Maryland, Kareem Jackson of Alabama and Kyle Wilson of Boise State. They also brought in Texas' Earl Thomas, a college safety who has the potential to play cornerback at the next level.
The defensive line is a solid group, but age is becoming a factor. Nose tackle Casey Hampton was re-signed in the offseason, but he will be 33 in September. Defensive end Aaron Smith turned 34 this month. Pittsburgh selected Ziggy Hood in the first round of the 2009 draft, and may elect to add some young depth again this year. The team brought in Alex Carrington of Arkansas State, Clifton Geathers of South Carolina, Linval Jospeh of Louisville and Mike Neal of Purdue for visits.
The linebacking corps is still an outstanding group, but age is a concern there too. Inside linebacker James Farrior is 35 and has slowed down a bit, although he still managed to lead the team in tackles. On the outside, James Harrison will be 32 in May and seemed to wear down towards the end of the season, as he failed to record a sack in final six games. Penn State's Sean Lee and Marshall's Albert Mclellan were brought in for visits, both of whom project as inside linebackers in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense. Several outside linebackers were hosted on pre-draft visits, including Jerry Hughes of TCU, Koa Misi of Utah, Adrian Tracy of William & Mary, Eric Norwood of South Carolina and Navorro Bowman of Penn State.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers' rushing attack wasn't as effective as it has been in the past. The problems start up front with the offensive line. The group is average and isn't overly powerful. They have trouble moving people off the line and are especially ineffective on third-downs and inside the red zone. They also struggled to protect the quarterback, and allowed the second-most sacks in 2009. Some of the blame is on Roethlisberger, but the line could use an upgrade. All five starters from last season were retained, so they may not elect to make major changes. Pittsburgh hosted five offensive lineman on pre-draft visits including Florida center Maurkice Pouncey, Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga and guards Mike Iupati of Idaho, Jacques McClendon of Tennessee and Chris DeGeare of Wake Forest.
Rashard Mendenhall had his first 1,000 yard season in 2009 and is starting to show the ability that convinced the Steelers to make him their top pick two years ago. But the team parted ways with Willie Parker in the offseason and needs more depth at running back. Some lightning to compliment Mendenhall's thunder would be a nice addition at some point in the draft.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: K Jeff Reed (tendered at $2.81 million and signed offer sheet
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: QB Charlie Batch (re-signed for two-years), S Tyrone Carter (was not re-signed), S Ryan Clark (re-signed for four-years at $14 million), DE Nick Eason (re-signed), WR Joey Galloway (was not re-signed), DE Travis Kirschke (was not re-signed), RB Willie Parker (was not re-signed, signed with Washington), CB Deshea Townsend (was not re-signed), LB Rocky Boiman (was not re-signed), K Jeff Reed (franchised), NT Casey Hampton (re-signed for three-years at $21 million)
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: T Willie Colon (received first-round tender at $2.521 million), P Daniel Sepulveda (received original-round tender at $1.101 million), CB William Gay (received original-round tender at $1.101 million), TE Matt Spaeth (received original-round tender at $1.101 million), RB Carey Davis (was not tendered), C Darnell Stapleton (was not tendered)
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: LB Patrick Bailey (received one-year tender and signed)
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: K Jeff Reed, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, QB Charlie Batch, LB Patrick Bailey, NT Casey Hampton
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: CB David Pittman, LB Renauld Williams (CFL), S Will Allen (signed for three-years at $4.495 million), WR Arnaz Battle (signed for three-years at $3.975 million), T Jonathan Scott, LB Larry Foote (signed for three-years at $9.3 million), WR Antwaan Randle El (signed for three-years)
PLAYERS LOST: WR Santonio Holmes (via trade with New York Jets), S Tyrone Carter, WR Joey Gallorway, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, CB Deshea Townsend, C Darnell Stapleton, RB Carey Davis, LB Rocky Boiman
CORNERBACK -- A secondary that was the league's best statistical unit in 2008 fell to 16th last season and gave up far too many big plays. An obvious reason for the decrease in effectiveness was the loss of Troy Polamalu, who missed 11 games with injury. Still, the cornerback play was weak and the team needs a talented young player at the position.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- Pittsburgh kept all its 2009 starters from the offensive line, but the group wasn't particularly effective. They didn't get a strong push in the running game and ranked second-to-last as they allowed 50 sacks. Roethlisberger takes too many sacks and needs to do a better job of throwing the ball away, but much of the problem still goes back to the offensive line. An upgrade along the front five is needed.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- The group is still solid, but age is creating a major need for depth. Nose tackle Casey Hampton was re-signed in the offseason, but he turns 33 in September. Hampton's backup, Chris Hoke, turned 34 this month, as did starting defensive end Aaron Smith. The Steelers added depth to their 30 front last season by drafting Ziggy Hood in the first round and should look to continue getting younger this time around.
RUNNING BACK -- Rashard Mendenhall is becoming the premier back the Steelers envisioned when they selected him in the first round of the 2008 draft, but depth is needed behind him. The team parted ways with Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore was largely ineffective. Grabbing a scat back to compliment Mendenhall would be a nice addition.
LINEBACKER -- Like the defensive line, this group is still solid but is getting old. At 35, inside linebacker James Farrior is beginning to slow down. Former defensive player of the year James Harrison turns 32 in May and seemed to wear down towards the end of the season. Youth is needed at the linebacker level inside and out.
QUARTERBACK -- As you would expect, rumors are surfacing that Pittsburgh is open to trading Ben Roethlisberger in light of his off-field troubles. It would be hard to imagine the team trading a two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback, but grabbing a young signal caller at some point in the draft would be a smart investment.