Offseason In Review: Pittsburgh Steelers

After a fairly uneventful offseason, the Steelers will look to repeat as AFC North champs.

Notable signings:

Arthur Moats not only decided to stay with the Steelers in March, he decided to give himself the scoop on the story. Moats let Steeler Nation know that he would be staying in Pittsburgh and it was later learned that it was a three-year, $7.5MM deal for the outside linebacker. That may not be big bucks compared to some other free agent deals, but it marked a pay raise for Moats after he played on a minimum salary benefit deal in 2014. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) was very high on the 26-year-old’s performance against the run in 2013 and in 2014 he received high marks for his overall performance. PFF had Moats ranked as the 17th best outside linebacker in a 3-4 set with his 7.3 overall grade. Those advanced numbers put him ahead of guys like Clay Matthews, Trent Cole, Aldon Smith, and Brian Orakpo in 2014.

When the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams on March 13th, he was brought in with the intention of being one of Le’Veon Bell‘s primary backups. Now, with Bell sidelined for the first three games of the season, the former Panthers back will play an even more pivotal role as the primary back to start the year. Williams, a former first-round pick, is coming off the worst season of his career, one marred by injuries. The 31-year-old played only six games for the Panthers, and wasn’t productive when he did play, averaging a career-low 3.5 yards per carry on 62 total attempts. Carolina had been on track to head into the 2015 league year with three running backs among their top 10 cap numbers — Jonathan Stewart, Williams, and Mike Tolbert counted for about $18MM combined, so it came as no surprise when the club decided to part ways with Williams, a longtime Panther.

In March, James Harrison was split between the Steelers and Titans. While he was tempted to follow Dick LeBeau to Tennessee, he ultimately decided to remain in Pittsburgh on a two-year deal. Harrison played the 2013 season in Cincinnati, but after an underwhelming stint with the Bengals, Harrison decided to call it a career. His retirement lasted for all of 18 days before his old teammates convinced him to rejoin their ranks. The 36-year-old, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent and even spent time on Baltimore’s roster in the early stages of his career, collected 5.5 sacks in 11 games for the Steelers last season. Harrison is no longer the feared pass rusher he once was, but he can still be useful in a limited role in clear passing downs.

Darrius Heyward-Bey was active for all 16 games for the Steelers last season, but didn’t see much action, earning just five targets on the year. With a new deal, it’s possible that DHB will take on a role that is more reminiscent of his time with the Raiders. The former No. 7 overall pick has never been a superstar, but he has shown the ability to burn defenders in the open field. It’s also possible that Heyward-Bey will see the bulk of his action on special teams, like he did last season.

In early March the Steelers added a notable name to their quarterback depth chart when they signed former Clemson signal caller Tajh Boyd. Boyd, who was drafted by the Jets in the sixth round of the 2014 draft, signed on for a one-year, minimum salary deal.

Notable losses:

Longtime Steelers safety Troy Polamalu announced his retirement from the NFL in April. One of the best defenders of his generation, Polamalu was not expected to return to Pittsburgh in 2015, and he explained that the idea of playing for another franchise did not appeal to him. Polamalu, 34, had been a fixture on the Steelers’ defense since entering the league in 2003, appearing in 158 total games for the franchise. However, he wasn’t the same game-changing player in 2014 that he had been earlier in his career. While Pro Football Focus (subscription required) still gave the veteran a positive grade, it was only by a hair — his +0.1 mark placed him 48th out of 87 qualified safeties. It was also the only season of Polamalu’s career besides 2007 in which he failed to record at least one interception or sack.

Polamalu’s retirement wasn’t totally shocking, but Jason Worilds‘ sure was. The 27-year-old played and started all 16 games for the Steelers, turning in perhaps the best season of his career with 62 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Before his announcement, Worilds was ranked 14th on PFR’s list of the top 50 free agents. The linebacker walked away from a likely $7-8MM annual salary with at least $15MM in guaranteed money to pursue a different path after experiencing a “spiritual awakening.”

Longtime Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor also decided to end his NFL playing career. The 35-year-old spent his entire playing career in Pittsburgh, having been drafted by the team in the fourth round back in 2003. Over the course of his 12 seasons as a Steeler, Taylor never earned a Pro Bowl nod, but was a steady and mostly reliable presence in the club’s secondary, playing 174 regular season contests (140 starts) and another 14 postseason games.

Pittsburgh showed little to no interest in Brett Keisel for much of the 2014 offseason and only gave him a call in August after Darnell Dockett went down with a season-ending ACL injury. This year, Keisel’s season ended early when he suffered a triceps injury in late November against the Saints. Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics (subscription required) ranked him as just the 36th-best 3-4 end out of 45 qualifiers in 2013 and he ranked 30th out of 48 eligible 3-4 bookends in 2014.

Brice McCain, 28, was released by the Texans in 2014 after ranking dead last among 110 qualified cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus’ grades in 2013 (subscription required). He went on to turn things around with the Steelers, recording 31 tackles and a career-high three interceptions. McCain didn’t grade out as a superstar in 2014, according to PFF, but he did improve, coming in as the 65th best cornerback out of 108 qualified players. McCain signed with the Dolphins shortly after the start of free agency.

Near the start of the offseason that veteran wide receiver Lance Moore asked the Steelers to release him, and the team eventually obliged. Moore landed with the Lions and later explained his motivations.

“I knew the day after the playoff loss that we had, I knew that I didn’t want to be there anymore,” said Moore. “They made me inactive. And I knew at that point that the writing is on the wall. I could see what their future plans were for me; it was the first time in my career that I was a healthy inactive.”

Ben Tate was viewed as a breakout candidate heading into 2014 after leaving Houston, where he had backed up Arian Foster for the first few years of his NFL career. In Cleveland, Tate struggled and was hampered by injuries early in the season, and fell behind rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West on the team’s depth chart. The Browns opted to release Tate, at which point the Vikings claimed him on waivers, but the 26-year-old didn’t impress in Minnesota either, and the team cut him in December. Weeks later, needing a warm body for the playoffs, the Steelers inked the veteran. Now, Tate continues to look for an NFL home in 2015.

Extensions and restructures:

The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger were working on a reworked deal for some time and they finally got it done in mid-March. Big Ben was set to enter the final year of his contract, earning a $11.6MM base to go along with a prorated $6.795MM, adding up to a massive $18.395MM cap number. Now, he’s under a new five-year pact worth $99MM that can balloon to $108MM with incentives.

Also of note is a new deal that did not happen this offseason, or at least hasn’t happened yet. Antonio Brown was arguably the league’s best wide receiver in 2014, leading the NFL in both receptions (129) and receiving yards (1,698). In April, he made it known that he is looking for a new contract that better reflects that production. Brown, a former sixth-round pick, signed his first big, long-term contract in 2012, agreeing to a five-year, $41.7MM pact. That deal pays him over $8MM per year, but that annual average value is outside the top 10 at his position, and places him behind players like Victor Cruz and Pierre Garcon. It was reported at one point that Brown wouldn’t attend the Steelers’ offseason program, but he showed up just one week later when things got underway. It’s not clear what Brown is looking for, but he would presumably want a bump in salary to at least the $11MM per year range. That’s what this year’s top free agent wideout, Jeremy Maclin, received. Despite the contract issue, Brown has made it clear that he is happy in Pittsburgh.

Draft picks:

  • 1-22: Bud Dupree, DE/OLB (Kentucky): Signed
  • 2-56: Senquez Golson, CB (Mississippi): Signed
  • 3-87: Sammie Coates, WR (Auburn): Signed
  • 4-121: Doran Grant, CB (Ohio State): Signed
  • 5-160: Jesse James, TE (Penn State): Signed
  • 6-199: L.T. Walton, DT (Central Michigan): Signed
  • 6-212: Anthony Chickillo, DE/OLB (Miami): Signed
  • 7-239: Gerod Holliman, S (Louisville): Signed

Bud Dupree was connected to a lot of teams heading into the draft and the Steelers were delighted when he fell to them at No. 22 overall. Dupree’s in-game motivation was a bit inconsistent at Kentucky, but he has also displayed impressive strength and athleticism. Dupree has spoken about his affinity for the Steelers defenses of old and has vowed to help bring that hard-hitting style back to Pittsburgh.


Dick LeBeau, 77, announced in January that he would resign from his post as DC, but he made it clear that he would not be retiring.

I’m resigning this position, not retiring,” LeBeau said. “I had a great run in Pittsburgh. I’m grateful for all the things that have happened to me and thankful for all the support I had in Pittsburgh.”

LeBeau joined on with the Titans’ staff while linebackers coach Keith Butler was promoted to take his place. From the sound of it, Butler intends on letting his playmakers in the front seven do their thing.

“Coach Buts said early on, ‘I’m not going to hold you back. I want the linebackers to fend for themselves. I expect you guys to make plays for yourself,” lineman Cameron Heyward said.

Top 10 cap hits for 2015:

  1. Ben Roethlisberger, QB: $17,245,000
  2. Lawrence Timmons, LB: $12,566,250
  3. Antonio Brown, WR: $9,787,500
  4. LaMarr Woodley, OLB: $8,580,000 (dead money)
  5. Cortez Allen, CB: $6,981,000
  6. Cameron Heyward, DL: $6,969,000
  7. Heath Miller, TE: $5,666,666
  8. Troy Polamalu, S: $4,500,000 (dead money)
  9. Maurkice Pouncey, C: $4,296,000
  10. Shaun Suisham, K: $3,665,000

The first three games alone won’t dictate any team’s season, but it is fair to wonder how starting the season without Bell will affect the Steelers. Even when Bell returns to the club, the Steelers will have to deal with an absolutely brutal schedule for the remainder of the 2015 season. The Steelers could very well repeat this year, but it certainly won’t be easy.

Contract information from Over the Cap and Spotrac was used in the creation of this post.

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2 comments on “Offseason In Review: Pittsburgh Steelers

  1. Luke Adams

    It should be interesting to see how the Steelers defense changes – or stays the same – under Butler. He’s been in Pittsburgh as an understudy to LeBeau for so long that I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t miss a beat.

  2. Dallas Robinson

    I was kind of surprised by the Steelers’ draft choices. It seems like they went with a lot of risky, upside plays, when given the state of their defense, I thought they should’ve targeted some high-floor guys who are sure to contribute *something*.


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