By Matthew Marczi
The Pittsburgh Steelers have their work cut out for them coming off consecutive non-winning seasons. It takes elbow grease to get from 8-8 to a contender, as everybody knows, of course, but this offseason, the issue is more complicated than simply improving, due to some uncommon circumstances.
One of the top priorities facing the organization is an issue that the front office has not had to deal with for several years now, which is finding a new starting safety.
Now, we can’t of course completely rule out the possibility of free safety Ryan Clark returning to the team for one or two more seasons. After all, the last time he hit free agency, he nearly signed with the Miami Dolphins before having a change of heart and calling up Pittsburgh’s front office one more time to work something out.
As it stands right now, however, I believe we have to consider this scenario somewhat unlikely, given his increasing age, declining performance, and seemingly disproportionate salary demands relative to the aforementioned variables.
It’s not long ago at all that Clark was a Pro Bowl or Pro Bowl-caliber starting safety. A parallel observation could be made for Brett Keisel along the defensive line. But both players, who just so happen to be the oldest players on the team, are impending free agents that have seen their performance on the decline.
In Keisel’s situation, there are viable alternatives. There is already Ziggy Hood, who has started 46 games for the Steelers, and there’s Al Woods, who also has some starting experience. They are both also free agents, but are more easily, and likely, re-signed. Then there are young assets such as Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams. Steve McLendon is also more than capable of starting at defensive end.
At safety, perhaps the best alternative currently would be to re-sign the soon-to-be-32-year-old Will Allen, who started seven games at strong safety in place of Troy Polamalu in 2012 and became a key cog in the Steelers’ quarters package last season as a third safety.
He already has that starting experience, but given his age and talent level, he would clearly be just a one- or two-year stopgap. That much could hardly be denied.
But might that be all they need? Could either Robert Golden or Shamarko Thomas emerge into starting material over the next season or so? Might the Steelers draft a safety early in this draft, such as HaHa Clinton-Dix?
But even if they do, they will still be looking for another safety, as the soon-to-be-33-year-old Polamalu will certainly be moving on to his life’s work as early as 2015. So the team’s immediate plans for the future of the safety position must account for the complete overhaul of the starting lineup within, likely, two seasons.
Should they do what they’ve done in recent years at wide receiver, outside linebacker, offensive line, and cornerback, by doubling up on the picks in the draft? Might they be at a point where that’s necessary?
Is there another Ryan Clark out there, a low-key, unheralded free agent that can command the sidecar next to Polamalu for half a dozen years or so? Is that the route the Steelers should be exploring right now?
As for where we are now, in February 2014, the Steelers must begin the search for a starting free safety for this season. Could it be Clark or Allen? Perhaps Thomas, or even Golden? Could they seriously contemplate moving Ike Taylor to safety (or more realistically, William Gay)?
Dave Bryan talked about former Green Bay Packers safety Nick Collins and his attempt to return to the game this season. Perhaps Collins, or a player like Collins, will be the Steelers’ next Ryan Clark. But even if the next Ryan Clark is out there, it won’t be long until we need to find the next Troy Polamalu.
Previous Articles In This Series
Steelers Offseason Priorities – A Primer
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Finding An Offensive Line Coach
Steelers Offseason Priorities – What To Do With Woodley And Worilds
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Replenishing The WR Depth Chart
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Riding The The Defensive End Carousel
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Extending Ben Roethlisberger
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Talking To Ike Taylor