Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Next up? The Steelers, who enter the 2016 season as one of the favorites, and who have to figure out just how many holes they have—and whether they need to fill them from outside the organization. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse draft order over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
S Will Allen, OT Kelvin Beachum, CB Antwon Blake, CB Brandon Boykin, G Ramon Foster, CB William Gay, S Robert Golden, NT Steve McLendon
Player(s) that must be re-signed
Foster, Gay, Boykin: Kelvin Beachum’s contract talks didn’t really work out for either party. The Steelers made a run at extending his contract last year, Beachum declined and then tore his ACL in Week 6. Alejandro Villanueva may not be the long-term answer at left tackle, but he held up well enough in Beachum’s absence that Pittsburgh should not feel obligated to toss Beachum another contract.
Which shifts the focus to Foster. The veteran just finished a three-year, $5.5 million contract, culminating in a $2.15 million cap hit this past season—about where the Steelers need to be on the left side with David DeCastro earning $8 million per season at right guard. Foster, 30, would have no trouble drumming up interest outside of Pittsburgh but he won’t break the bank anywhere.
A lot of the talk from here on out in this primer will focus on the Steelers’ secondary, a group that finished 30th vs. the pass in 2015 and now features five pending free agents (Allen, Blake, Boykin, Golden and Gay); a sixth, RFA Ross Cockrell, just re-signed for another year.
The Steelers let Gay walk once before and he promptly returned a year later after being cut by Arizona. It’s hard to imagine the two sides parting again, not with the 31-year-old Gay coming off a solid season. His veteran presence is needed badly, too. Between Cockrell and 2015 draft picks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, the Steelers could be very young at cornerback headed into next year, even more so with Cortez Allen a non-factor (and a release candidate).
Boykin is on the youthful side, as well, at 25. But ... well, what happened last year is tough to figure. The Steelers acquired him from Philadelphia in exchange for a 2016 fifth-round pick, then just buried him on the bench for much of the year. When he finally saw regular playing time—around Week 13—he bolstered the secondary, as more or less everyone assumed he might when the deal happened. He is a very capable NFL slot cornerback.
But did the Steelers burn the bridge by limiting his playing time? Will he try to land a top-two job with another team? We’ll see, but this defense would be better with him.
McLendon is another intriguing case. He's not a true 3–4 nose tackle at 280 pounds, unlike the guy behind him on the depth chart: The 350-pound Daniel McCullers. However, McClendon has been steady and can slide around to multiple spots up front. He might be worth retaining.
Most important position to improve
Safety: Mike Mitchell solidified one starting safety job last season, rebounding from a hit-or-miss 2014 to help anchor the secondary. What’s the plan next to him?
Allen, who turns 34 in June, is past the days when he could—or rather, should—be counted on as a full-time starter. Robert Golden made a handful of starts, but the Steelers probably would prefer to keep him as a role player. Shamarko Thomas ... nah.
So that leaves a glaring hole next to Mitchell, even with Thomas and Ross Ventrone set to return. The Steelers definitely could bring Allen or Golden back at a reasonable price, but an upgrade should be a priority. The in-house options do not move the needle much for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Other positions to improve
Cornerback, guard/tackle, linebacker, backup QB: Covered the corners above and will again below. Same goes for the offensive line.
On to linebacker, then: The Steelers have a 2013 first-rounder (Jarvis Jones), a ’14 first-rounder (Ryan Shazier), a ’15 first-rounder (Bud Dupree). Veterans Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison are also still around—provided Harrison wants to play another season—plus the underrated Arthur Moats. If nothing else, the Steelers can throw myriad combinations out there.
They also have to face reality. A decision is needed soon on Jarvis Jones’s fifth-year contract option, while Harrison, who’ll be 38 in May, has said he’s unsure if he will be back next year. If Dupree fails to develop or Shazier continues to struggle with injuries, the situation could unravel in a hurry.
And an all-hands-on-deck scenario still could leave Pittsburgh shy on pass rushers. DEs Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt finished 1–2 on the roster in sacks last season; Timmons and Harrison led the linebackers with 5.0 each. A potent pass rush can help cover up any lingering issues Pittsburgh might have in the secondary, but it’s not present yet.
The backup QB slot is important mainly because of Ben Roethlisberger’s own health woes in recent years. Bruce Gradkowski and Michael Vick are free agents, and Landry Jones doesn’t appear to have much of a future with the organization.
Overall priority this off-season
Figure out what’s already there: How aggressive Pittsburgh has to be in the coming months depends on how confident the front office is in its past work. Let’s just imagine that Foster, Gay, Boykin and Allen return and that Le’Veon Bell, Ryan Shazier and Roethlisberger all hit training camp at 100%. The holes at that point would be minimal, most of them existing on the defense.
Everything begins to change if the Steelers have to go out after a starting safety (Eric Weddle?) or multiple cornerbacks. The organization has not been averse to dropping guys in on their defensive back line, but discovering permanent solutions would be the preferred path.
Vegas already has pegged the Steelers as one of the favorites for the 2016 season. The offense alone is enough reason for the home fans to be excited. The difference between a really good year and another Super Bowl could hinge on how many vacancies GM Kevin Colbert decides he has to fill from outside the organization.