AR2 Says Steelers Will Be “Opportunistic” In Free Agency

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.

  • RW

    Dexter McCluster and Wesley Woodyard make more sense than grabbing any of these top guys, whose positions will be the focus of the upcoming draft.

  • DrakePirate

    Ike will take a Major pay cut to stay and will be just fine … he is not elite or a shut down corner anymore but is still serviceable and can groom the CB draft picks we pick up over the next two years … i see us picking up at least 2 CBs in the draft along with some UDFAs this year. Safety is a concern as we will be fine for next year with Troy who will also take a modest pay cut ( i think the FO will only slightly reduce his salary rather than cut it in half as a gesture of his past service) and Shamarko will be an upgrade over this year, but as Troy’s days are numbered we need to either draft a good Safety prospect or pick one up in FA and i can’t see us solving both CB & S issues this offseason, but hopefully we make some headway and complete the secondary rebuilding by next offseason … i think Ike & troy will do a decent job of filling the gap until then

  • SteelerFanInMD

    I think it is unlikely that they will sign any of the top free agents. It takes a few years of apprenticeship for young players to break into Dick LeBeau’s starting lineup. How much different would it be for a free agent veteran? The Steelers aren’t going to sign a high priced FA and give him a year or so to learn the D.

  • Callentown

    Nice piece Jeremy.

    If the Steelers begin next season with Gay and Allen at CB, I’m afraid we may drop further down the defensive rabbit hole. We need a stud at the #1 to cover the AJ Green’s and Josh Gordon’s.

  • Rick M

    What does a vague word like “opportunistic” mean? Signing a bunch of players that were once on your roster that you let leave, and then re-signing them when they are released by their new team because they know your system? That’s pretty much been the case for the last several years.

    When I read some of the good names above (e.g. Sam Shields) who may be available, I just shake my head. The Steelers won’t have the money to sign them – pretty much all of us know that.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Would be nice if Haley could convince McCluster to join the Steelers. He could serve as an explosive option on 3rd downs and also be a major upgrade to our return game.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Looking at both sides of the ball this year it seems like the Offense is much further along than the defense right now so I would like to see us pick up a few key FA acquisitions on the Offense such as 3rd down back/Returner and possibly a WR. That would allow them to use the draft to focus on some good young players on the defensive side. I could see both Troy and Ike taking pay cuts so you have them for one final year and replacements waiting in the wings.

  • Kirby Hogenmiller

    The only guy i can see who we might be able to get is TJ Ward and that’s only because he doesn’t get many turnovers. but if the browns a smart they will probably sign him.

  • David Edward

    I would translate “opportunistic” as going after what they believe to be value-priced FAs, which is basically what they always do.

  • WIINGY

    Now we are talking. The Steelers have to part ways with Ike. That would free up 7 million in cap space. I would hate to cut Troy, but they could sign either of the top safeties if Ike and Troy were cut.

    Cutting Ike, Troy, and Levi Brown would save 21.5 million on the cap.

    Another contract they need to look at is Heath Miller. His cap hit is 9.4 million. A lot for a Tight End who has lost a step.

  • Ryan Barton

    I think the Steelers could use a veteran or experienced safety FA to compete with, and coach, Shamarko. I think just one major free agent signing that may be able to contribute as much as Cotchery has for the Steelers would be enough this off season. Maybe they could consider a veteran or experienced MLB instead, but I don’t know of any that are going to be FA’s this off season.

  • WIINGY

    This is complete crap. A veteran free agent can come in and start. It isn’t that complicated.

  • WIINGY

    this is a pipe dream. Ike Taylor is finished.

    If the Steelers cut him, they could sign him back mid season just like Will Allen. Cut him, get your cap relief and then bring him back for the minimum when everybody realizes he sucks and he’s out of a job.

  • WIINGY

    They could have the money if they made a few tough decisions.
    Forget loyalty, we need to be competitive. They have to cut some house hold names to be relevant again.

  • Jarod Wells

    Shields: 3-4 corner, solid against run and pass, fairly young, Won a Super Bowlr, contained Antonio Brown this year. He shouldn’t cost a ridiculous amount of money. I would put my money on this guy.

  • gene mann

    I agree with the above post because the defense needs an upgrade and since it seems very hard for Draft picks to have an Impact in their first year.FA will seem to be the way to go especially at those postions or even ILB

  • Jay Jaber

    We would not be talking about the corner back position right now if we signed keenin Lewis last year. Idk if you guys watched the game yesterday he seriously is the one of the best players on the saits defense. another year and he will be considered a shut down corner. I was so upset to see him go. I always thought he could be better then Ike Taylor. And sure looks that way

  • dkoy85

    This is probably a shot in the dark but I’d love to see some complimentary pieces signed thru FA and in the first two rounds of the draft on D. Grab a stud NFL ready DE first round to compliment Cam on the ends and a CB 2nd round to compete for the starting lineup. Then pick up one of the top safeties thru FA to pair up with Polamalu and give Shark one more year to develop. Sign Worilds, trade Woodley and sign a veteran OLB to help develop Jones and push him thru camp. Obviously a lot will have to happen to free up that kinda cap space but a man can dream.

    Not too worried about the offense..

  • srdan

    Sam shields will either end up in GB (doubtful) or go to a team with a rookie or journeyman QB contract.

  • gene mann

    People dont understand that the guy wanted to play for his hometown team. I wish this talk would go away

  • DrakePirate

    I still think he is serviceable and for 2-3 million is worth keeping another year … even if it was for the 3rd CB position … he is at least average … i dont think he lost all his ability in one year !

  • HopalongCassidy

    We should be worried with the 20th ranked offense out of 32. This is an offensive league. Steelers need to become a top ten offense and could use a couple more pieces like an OT and a big wide receiver to get there.

  • Jay Jaber

    That’s true but he said he would stay with steelers if they wanted him to stay witch means pay him more than the saints

  • DrakePirate

    I think they might have some $$$ if they make a few key shrewd moves!

  • DrakePirate

    Value based FA is exactly what they need to do … but i wouldn’t say that is always what they have done in the past

  • Waverly benson

    We need coaching the d-line keep getting talent but
    Not good coaching look at the pats, giants d-line in bill dayz
    Coaching was the game if you practice against a good offense of line
    you will have a good defensive line
    and vice versa it will free the linebackers up
    look at the NFC game Panthers and 49Ers
    coach and play physical !

  • John A Stewart

    The Steeler’s have a guy name Nick Williams a beast for the d-line.Our d- line coach John Mitchell said Nick is a 2 to 3 year project give me a brake I really think it’s time for Mitchell to go we need new coach’s who teach better and faster.

  • MC

    Enlighten us on how you know the intricasies of an NFL defensive scheme?

  • LucasY59

    I Think Donald Butler would be a better LB to pick up in FA over Woodyard. He’s a couple years younger and stronger in coverage.
    I like McCluster or drafting De’Anthony Thomas in the 5th round if he’s available.

  • dkoy85

    I agree it would be nice to add a couple pieces to the O but that 20th ranked offense started off very, very slow and turned into a strength the second half of the season. The defense is the issue right now- definitely not the Steelers D of past. If we would just participate a little bit in FA- defense and offense- this year we could make a Superbowl run.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    They will do the usual thing, as you will never see them go crazy while the other idiot teams overpay in the first week or 2 of free agency with those astronomical contracts. Then later there will be veterans to be had at much cheaper prices.

    You have to just hope that they can catch someone who is reasonable that can make a contribution almost immediately. They sometimes get lucky to find the Farrior type. I wish I could tell you some obvious candidate for certain positions, but it seems a bit early to speculate.

  • Bob Loblaw

    While I (or anyone else for that matter) can’t speak as to how good he’ll be next year, you only need to look at Green’s numbers against the Steelers this year to see he isn’t washed up. Simply not enough depth at the position for him to be expendable, and that’s even figuring that we spend a couple draft picks on the position.

  • Bob Loblaw

    High priced? No. The Steelers likely won’t make any blockbuster deals. But a veteran player who can add some depth to the team and contribute on special teams? Much more likely.

    Cotchery is a good example of this, and the type of move I’d be for.

  • stan kemp

    You are exactly right. opportunistic means bringing back our players that we let go that didnt fair to well with us before, and then they get cut by other teams that they go to, and then we bring them back, because they supposedly know the system. All that is is patchwork and stopgap players, while everybody else in our division continues to sign IMPACT PLAYERS to make their teams better and even in the nfl. we are only striving for medeocracy and we wonder why we continue to be 8-8 every year. Im still mad at the keenan lewis deal i dreamed of him and allen being probably the best or one of the best duo of corner backs in the league but oh no they would rather keep ike taylor who is in his mid 30 ‘s and whos been getting his drawers burned off for the last few years and was making alot lot more money than a young stud like keenan lewis was willing to except to stay in pittsburgh. pittsburg makes me sick with that same old senario its getting old and im tired of it. It has to change or we are gonna be 8-8 again and now we have to look for a corner somewhere in the draft again.and we let one go that we drafted last year from illinois because he kept getting tthe injury bug he was cut for older players as usual he never got a chance because why do we continue to do that. since the Tomlin era thats all that we want to do. And now keenan lewis has become the best cornerbacks on the saints and one of the best cornerbacks in the league. This is not the pittsburgh that i use to know; we use to stay ahead of the game now we are behind in the game period. what is wrong with our organizationdont they know that being cheap doesnt always work all the time and it looks like its not working for us anymore. Pittsburgh> get with the game> change.