Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert fielded questions yesterday from the local media, during which he was asked about the secondary depth. His answer was equally candid and obvious, suggesting that the organization didn’t exactly have a level of comfort at the moment regarding the current quality of depth.
He also alluded to the fact that the answer to that question was tied to what kind of departures the position could face this offseason. The most obvious candidate would be of course Ryan Clark due to the fact that he’s a free agent.
On the other hand, re-signing Clark and releasing Ike Taylor, in the last year of his contract and the possessor of a nearly $12 million cap hit, would likely be the cheaper option. The Steelers could save $7 million by releasing Taylor.
Meanwhile, Clark’s total cap hit in 2013 was just under $5 million between his base salary and the proration of his signing bonus. His base salary was $3.5 million, and while he intimated during the season that he would not be open to taking a bargain, even he likely realizes that it might be difficult for him to find that kind of salary anywhere in the league.
Even Ed Reed, a future Hall of Famer, signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Houston Texans last season, and that was with a team coming off a Super Bowl victory, which many of their free agents profited from.
The entire league saw how well that contract worked out for the Texans, as Reed was cut in the middle of the season despite having $6 million guaranteed. Thus, even if Clark’s expectations might be high right now, the market could very well be telling him a different story a month from today.
Given their respective ages and recent decline in performance on the field, it’s likely that neither Clark nor Taylor have more than a year or two at best to offer the organization. And one could argue that the Steelers would be better off both financially and schematically with one or two more years with Clark than with Taylor.
Even if Taylor agrees to a $3 million pay cut, which is the figure many have been throwing out when debating the issue, one has to figure that Clark could be re-signed for less than the difference between that cut and the total cap savings of an outright release (which would be $4 million).
And the Steelers, in theory, could be better suited to replacing a starting cornerback than a starting safety, because they have two safeties that are capable of playing the slot.
If you have William Gay and Cortez Allen starting, both of whom have starting experience in the defense already, then, at worst, you could have Shamarko Thomas playing the slot, and he has already shown admirable man coverage abilities.
Thomas spent the early portions of the season as the nickel back as it was. There is also Robert Golden, who was a college cornerback who made the conversion to safety, but can still, obviously, play cornerback.
It’s more likely, in my view, that Clark’s 2013 performance was an aberration than was Taylor’s. A big part of Taylor’s game was his speed, which he is now gradually losing. He’s not the type of cornerback that can shut down an opposing team’s top target any more. And Gay was more reliable against the run than Taylor was, which used to be one of his strengths.
Alternatively, I think many of Clark’s missteps throughout the season—outside of the missed tackles—could be traced back to the defensive shake up going on around him. He started to play outside of the scheme, unnecessarily trying to undercut shallow routes while letting the ball go over his head. This really shouldn’t be something that can’t be fixed, and it’s certainly easier to make up than lost speed.
This probably isn’t the most likely scenario, by any means, but I think it’s an idea that is at least worth considering as a thought experiment. Might the Steelers be better off with one more year of Ryan Clark than they would be keeping Ike Taylor through the last on his contract, even if that comes at a reduced rate? I think it’s hard to say.