While the Steelers just finished a glorious Super Bowl run, their run for next year begins now as they evaluate free agents and prepare for the NFL draft. The decisions that are made over the next few months hold the key to next year. With their offensive line problems this year, I don't think they can sit tight with their current roster and win another ring next year. Nor should they risk their franchise quarterback behind such an unsteady group.
The first order of business is free agency. The Steelers must first determine which of their own free agents to try and sign while also evaluating other good fits from around the league. In terms of cap space, the Steelers are in the middle of the pack, 16th out of 32 teams. They have just over $20M in cap space. That means they are a long way from Cap Hell but not really positioned to be one of the major players in free agency, especially with some of their own free agents to resign and several of their key players entering the final year of their contracts. They'll want some money to try to offer some of these players contracts.
They have ten free agents this year but only a couple of those free agents are likely to attract a lot of attention from other teams. Byron Leftwich will almost certainly leave to compete for a starting job, although Charlie Batch will likely resign. Their top priority will be resigning Bryant McFadden, although he won't come cheap. He is a rising star in the secondary and top cornerbacks are hard to find. Not doubt other teams with secondardy problems and cap space have taken notice of McFadden. The Steelers trusted him enough as a rookie that they left him in single coverage on Reggie Wayne on a key playoff drive near the end of the game. That trust was rewarded when McFadden knocked the ball away, ultimately preserving the win. If they can lock up McFadden, the Steelers would have one of the league's top secondaries again next year.
Most of their free agents are on the offensive line. This is where it gets a little tougher. They might ultimately need to choose between resigning McFadden or making a serious bid to upgrade the offensive line. The offensive line was their glaring weakness on this year's team and they would definitely like to take it up a notch. In fact, they must improve it if they want to make a run at another Super Bowl. I don't think they'll resign Marvel Smith because of his health issues. I am doubtful that they'll resign Chris Kemoeatu unless he comes cheap. He was a weak link on a weak line. I think they will try to resign Max Starks because, frankly, they don't have any better options at the moment. They overpaid for him this year but needed him when Smith went down. Ideally, he would move back over to the right side. They'll also likely make a modest offer to Trai Essex, who would be a backup. They'll also likely bring back Willie Colon as a restricted free agent since he probably will come at a reasonable cost.
Another question mark is Nate Washington. He was their number three receiver this year and fulfilled that role relatively well. Whether they resign him will depend on what kind of interest he receives from other teams. The main reason to keep Washington is because Limas Sweed has been slow to develop and does not look ready to assume a large role in the offense. I'd like to see Washington back but see it as a 50/50 proposition at best.
While that covers this year's group of Steelers free agents, there are a number of key players entering their last year who they will likely want to resign. Some of the key players in this category are James Harrison, Hines Ward, Heath Miller, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Ryan Clark. That is a lot of key talent with contracts coming due. The Steelers would like to extend the contracts on some of these key players, which will cost them additional cap room. Larry Foote is another player entering his final year, but with what Lawrence Timmons showed this year, I expect the Steelers will either trade Foote or release him to clear additional cap space.
That doesn't leave much room in free agency. The only area the Steelers are likely to focus on outside the team during free agency is offensive line. I'd like to see them try and sign Jordan Gross, but I don't see that as likely unless they can lure him for under market value for the chance to play on a Super Bowl contender. Not likely considering he was already on a contender. There are plenty of teams who have needs at tackle, and some of them have more cap room to maneuver. The Steelers are more likely to look for a couple bargain players with potenial they think they can develop. The Steelers have done an outstanding job over the years in signing those types of players. In looking at the list of available offensive linemen, it is hard to guess who those players might be but I expect the Steelers to sign at least two offensive linemen from off the team during free agency.
During the last two drafts, I expected the Steelers to focus on the offensive line. While I was very surprised two years ago when they drafted back to back linebackers, I was downright stunned last year when they went through two rounds without picking a linemen. The run on linemen in the middle of the first round likely influenced their decision. This year, they will almost certainly pick a linemen in the first round and maybe another one in the second. The problem with picking dead last in the first round is that they will not likely find someone who is ready to play right away. The talent drop off at offensive lineman is more precipitous than some other positions and it is harder to find a steal later in the draft. The only way I can see them going with another position early on day one is if a defensive lineman slides much further than expected, since age is starting to become an issue there. Otherwise, they'll look for a defensive lineman in the third run they can develop.
The next few months will be interesting to watch. If they can moderately upgrade their line, they have an excellent shot of making another deep run next year. They have a favorable schedule and their defense should be tough as nails again. If they can moderately improve their offensive line, the Steelers have an outstanding shot of holding the Lombardi trophy again at the end of next season.