By Matthew Marczi
For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.
Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.
Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.
Question: Could the secondary hold up in 2014 if they were asked to withstand the loss of Ike Taylor?
Ike Taylor, who formally could have been in the discussion of ‘shutdown’ cornerbacks, certainly didn’t play with shutdown-quality coverage during the 2013 season, during which he gave up more yardage than any cornerback in the league. I’ve looked at the grizzly details of his 2013 season before in other articles, so it’s not necessary to revisit all of them again, but suffice it to say that they raise some cause for concern.
Taylor, who will be 34 in May, missed most of the second half of the 2012 season with a lower leg injury, and he never really looked to be at his best at any point this past year. He was notably slower, with more receivers able to get past him, regardless of whether or not he made the reception.
The Detroit Lions game comes to mind, when Matthew Stafford’s early inaccuracy bailed out the secondary a number of times down the field before he started connecting in an explosive second quarter.
Taylor enters the 2014 on the last year of a four-year contract, during which he has a base salary of $7 million and a cap hit of nearly $12. The Steelers could save the worth of that base salary by releasing him, which would go a long way to achieving the organization’s other offseason goals, such as re-signing Jason Worilds.
They already have two cornerbacks that they trust with starting experience in William Gay and Cortez Allen, so those would be your starting cornerbacks, barring a modest free agent signing, should the Steelers release Taylor. With the savings, they could also keep the rest of the starting secondary intact by re-signing Clark.
This might also be beneficial for Shamarko Thomas as well, who may not be quite ready to overtake a starting safety spot, but could certainly profit from inheriting the nickel back role for a season, which he already played some as a rookie.
The Steelers will certainly be looking to draft a cornerback, and probably high, as early as the first round, when the draft rolls around, and it’s not unheard of for rookie cornerbacks to contribute on this defense in their rookie seasons. Both Allen and, as previously mentioned, Thomas played a decent amount in their first seasons, so that could provide some insulation in case of injuries.
Considering the Steelers allowed almost 40 more yards through the air, more than half a yard per pass attempt, and 15 more explosive passing plays than the year before, and that Taylor was responsible for massive portions of that, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to move in another direction. How much worse could it get?