By Jeremy Hritz
Earlier this week, Art Rooney II made his annual offseason media tour to discuss the state of the Steelers and to provide some insight into the direction they steer in between now and the start of the 2014 regular season. While he was deliberate in his speech, he did provide certain nuggets of information that were intriguing, and though he asserted that the Steelers would not deviate from their conservative approach in free agency, he did say that the team would be “opportunistic.”
There are specific positions where the Steelers could be “opportunistic” this offseason, but much of it will be predicated on what happens with certain veterans and their exorbitant and unrealistic cap hits.
If there are two areas that the Steelers could address through free agency, the most obvious answers are safety and cornerback, and the outcome of pay cut discussions, or even extensions, for Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu could make it essential that the Steelers make a play for a quality replacement.
It is difficult to predict what will happen with Taylor or Polamalu and whether or not they would be willing to reduce their salaries, but losing either of them would create a significant void on an already tenuous Steelers secondary.
Let’s start at safety. Ryan Clark is either on his way to signing a one-year deal with a team of desperation or to beginning his career with the NFL Network or ESPN. Polamalu, while he didn’t enjoy his best year in 2013, he stayed healthy and did show that he still has the ability to play at an above-average level. If he returns, the safety tandem will be composed of Polamalu and second-year Shamarko Thomas. Should, however, Polamalu wind up being cut, the Steelers would almost be forced to sign a starting-caliber safety. But who are the top players available?
Jairus Byrd, a free agent from the Buffalo Bills that just finished up his fifth season, will be 27 at the start of next season. During his tenure with the Bills, he recorded 22 interceptions and 10 forced fumbles. He is a ball hawk, and it has been rumored that he wants to be the highest-paid safety in the NFL. While he would bring a playmaking element to the Steelers defense, the likelihood of the Steelers breaking the bank seems slim.
The other top safety that will be available is the Cleveland Browns T.J. Ward, who like Byrd, is 27 years old, yet has one year less experience. Ward is an aggressive and physical player that would fit well in Pittsburgh, but again, it is uncertain of what sort of price tag he would command. Over his four year career, Ward has collected five forced fumbles and five interceptions.
There are other free agent safeties available in free agency, such as Antoine Bethea and Chris Clemons, but Byrd and Ward will be the most sought after.
And what about cornerback? Taylor is getting older, and 2013 was the first year that he really began to show wear on the tires. While he has been an integral member of the Steelers and of the two Super Bowl championship teams, Taylor, who will turn 34 in May, is now more of a liability than he is an asset. Taylor has said that he wants to remain in Pittsburgh, and so a pay cut may be realistic; however, it would be foolish to believe that his skills won’t continue to decline next season, and he may be better suited to serve the team as their third cornerback. While I have been critical of William Gay in the past, he may be the better option as the starter in 2014 to pair with Cortez Allen. If Taylor doesn’t accept a reduction, then he could be cut as well, creating the need for at least some depth at the position if the Steelers feel comfortable with Allen and Gay as the starters. Because of this, cornerback could be a target area in free agency.
A player like Alterraun Verner could be a player to consider for the Steelers. Verner was a fourth-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in the 2010 NFL Draft that made his first Pro Bowl in 2013 after recording five interceptions. He is only 25 and could be a player that could stabilize the position for a few years. Verner will require a decent payday, but his number may be within reach of the Steelers.
Sam Shields is another player that could be considered, as he was the best cornerback for the Green Bay Packers in 2013. Despite being undrafted, Shields has picked off 13 passes during his four years with the Packers, and he will be looking to capitalize on the value that he has provided. The biggest knock on Shields has been his ability to stay healthy, but he should generate some serious attention this offseason.
Other available notable free agent corners this offseason are Brent Grimes, Captain Munnerlyn, and Tarell Brown.
While the Steelers will more than likely hold fast to their traditional approach to free agency, the outcome of salary issues with Polamalu and Taylor may force them to break from convention and sign either a safety or a cornerback. It’s going to be a must if the defense is to improve next season.