PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers’ offseason begins in earnest once they slap that franchise tag on Le'Veon Bell. But the franchise’s plan for the next six months won’t look much different from last year: Supplement an already talented roster with wise free-agency moves and deft drafting.
Now, with the NFL combine a week away, the Steelers have the next six months to get better.
Here’s a look at some key themes this offseason:
Free-agency plans intensify: The team will formulate this soon, probably before arriving in Indianapolis for the combine early next week. Most teams meet with the agents of their in-house free-agent players in this setting. Throughout these talks, the Steelers will prioritize their dozen-plus free agents while simultaneously targeting players on the open market who fit their identity.
Protect this house: Some of the Steelers’ biggest moves will be made with their own players. The team has begun negotiations with Drew Rosenhaus, the agent for Antonio Brown and free-agent linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Brown and Bell will be the priority. The team is on record that they want both in black and gold for the long term. That requires spending. The bad news for the Steelers: Brown will no longer play on the league's best bargain deal. The good news: Brown probably has three prime years left and should validate any new deal.
The Steelers seem to sense they have a unique window with two top-shelf playmakers in their prime, along with Martavis Bryant if he returns from suspension without issues. Keeping Bell and Brown surrounding Ben Roethlisberger for the next three years is an easy decision, assuming the money isn't absurd. Both players want to be here. And the wide receiver market is clear-cut, with four players clustered in the $15 million-per-year range. The Steelers can come in just around or below that with most of the guaranteed money tied to the first few years, leaving an escape door if Brown declines in his early 30s.
Early March moves: The three-day window to negotiate with unrestricted free agents begins March 6. Contracts can be finalized starting 4 p.m. ET on March 9. As a build-through-the-draft team, the Steelers often don’t spend exorbitant money in the first week. But last year’s decision to sign tight end Ladarius Green to a four-year, $20-million deal reminds the team feels it’s close to a seventh Super Bowl. If the Steelers see a piece they like, don’t be surprised by an aggressive move once again.
Is there finally clarity on the secondary? The 37-16 loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game was humbling for the Steelers’ secondary, but it’s not indicative of the pass coverage over the past year. Progress was made. Rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis acquitted themselves well, while veterans Ross Cockrell and Mike Mitchell were consistent players. Still, this team might be one good press-man corner away. Though the team isn’t expected to spend big on Trumaine Johnson or A.J. Bouye, a good second-tier option could be available. Perhaps Morris Claiborne's length would be attractive to Pittsburgh, though he also might command too steep a price.
Hard decisions loom on contracts: Convincing Timmons and James Harrison to take low-level money after productive seasons will be a hard sell regardless of age. But those negotiations will take place before free agency. The Steelers also must be forward-thinking with left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Both are unrestricted free agents in 2018, with Villanueva an exclusive rights free agent this year. That exclusive rights tender would pay around $600,000-plus, a small number for a 31-game starter on a very good line. Considering Villanueva's age (28), perhaps both sides could work out a reasonable extension now.
Less contract maneuvering: The Steelers have restructured several contracts over the past few years, including those of Mitchell, Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert. But the team also showed restraint in 2016 by not redoing Timmons, who played on a $15.1 million cap hit. With more than $30 million in projected cap space, the Steelers don’t really need to rework Roethlisberger’s $100 million contract, or anyone else’s, at least not out of desperation.
On the draft trail: Coach Mike Tomlin loves the draft process -- working out players, talking with coaches, getting to know prospects on a personal level. Expect Tomlin to be an active participant in the high-profile (and some low-profile) pro days. The staff and personnel department will disperse on a mission to comb for talent, as usual. The Steelers are considered one of the best teams in the NFL at this.
Bargain-bin shopping: Every year, veteran players are available on low-cost, high-impact deals in the early or later waves of free agency. Two years ago, the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams to a two-year, $4 million deal. He gave them 17 regular-season touchdowns in return. Last season, Ricardo Mathews turned a low-end, one-year contract into 14 tackles and five starts. If the Steelers feel they have a need based on what they see in offseason workouts, they’ll summon reinforcements.
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