As is widely known, the Pittsburgh Steelers have faced some significant departures this past offseason through free agency and release. The Steelers are currently without seven players that would have been opening day starters last season if injuries were not a factor; perhaps eight, if you include punter Jeremy Kapinos.
Such an overhaul has not occurred since at least the 1990s. Not even in head coach Mike Tomlin’s first two years with the team in 2007 and 2008 was there was an overhaul in the starting lineup as there will be this year, and at that time they lost players such as Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith, Jeff Hartings, Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, and Kendall Simmons.
This season, the following players have either signed free agent contracts elsewhere, remain unsigned, or were released for salary cap purposes: James Harrison, Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, Max Starks, Willie Colon, and Casey Hampton. All seven were certain to be opening day starters in 2012 barring injury. In fact, all but Mendenhall and Harrison started week one.
These players have accounted for a lot of snaps in 2012, as well as throughout their respective careers, particularly Hampton and Starks, and the snap count alone will not be simple to just replace. Harrison was for a while a perennial All-Pro caliber player, while Wallace and Hampton have merited Pro Bowl nominations.
It is primarily because of all of these departures—especially the high-dollar deals of Wallace and Lewis—that many experts of varying credibility question whether the Steelers can even muster an even record again in 2013, let alone reach the playoffs and make a dent in the postseason.
But change is not always a bad thing, especially when it is planned for, and one thing that the Steelers cannot be accused of for this wave of defections is being unprepared, as they so rarely are.
The Steelers underwent some pretty significant changes between the 2004 and 2005 seasons, especially if you compare the opening day starters, considering quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was not intended to start in his rookie season, with injury necessitating him playing earlier than anticipated. The 2005 year, of course, ended in a Super Bowl victory.
Aside from Roethlisberger being the opening day starter in 2005, however, there was also a change at running back, switching from Jerome Bettis to Willie Parker as the starter. Starks also took over for Oliver Ross at right tackle, and Ike Taylor replaced Willie Williams at cornerback.
Additionally, Plaxico Burress left for the New York Giants, replaced by Antwaan Randle El, and then rookie tight end Heath Miller replaced Jerame Tuman, although Tuman remained a contributor, primarily as a blocker. Bettis, of course, was also a significant contributor, and Tommy Maddox started two games that season while Roethlisberger was injured.
Unlike in 2005, the new starters this season will come entirely at the expense of players no longer on the team, and not partially due to demotions, as in the cases of Roethlisberger, Miller, Taylor, and Parker.
But the Steelers have prepared for this scenario through both this and past drafts, as well as in free agency. The new starters are more or less already in place, and names like Mike Adams, Cortez Allen, Steve McLendon, and Jason Worilds should be playing major roles in the success or failure of the team in 2013.
While we currently sit waiting for training camp to begin in the heart of summer and for the news cycle to pick back up, I intend to utilize this time to take a closer look at each position in flux one by one and analyze how the changes will affect the team from a personnel perspective.