How Will The Losses In Free Agency Alter The Steelers’ Offseason Strategy?

The Pittsburgh Steelers uncharacteristically dipped into the free agent pool early to bring in an outside free agent, signing former Carolina Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell to a five-year contract on Tuesday.

Yesterday was a different story. As per their norm, they worked toward rebuilding their roster by re-signing a trio of their own free agents: one on offense, one on defense, and one on special teams.

But they also lost a trio of free agents yesterday, one each signing with the Tennessee Titans, the San Diego Chargers, and the Arizona Cardinals.

All three losses come at fairly thin positions on the roster, having lost defensive end/nose tackle Al Woods, tight end David Johnson, and running back Jonathan Dwyer to the aforementioned teams, respectively.

The biggest loss would seem to be Woods, who signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Titans after playing not much over 200 snaps last season, but making two starts at nose tackle, and recording more sacks than Jarvis Jones.

With Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood—the latter of whom visited with the Jacksonville Jaguars yesterday—also free agents, whom the Steelers up until now don’t appear overwhelmingly interested in re-signing—the defensive end position suddenly becomes a critical need.

As it stands right now, the starting left defensive end would be Brian Arnfelt, who played two snaps last season. It’s highly unlikely that he’s ready to be a full-time starter before even being in the rotation. Behind him is Nick Williams, who didn’t make it out of preseason healthy.

At first blush, it would appear that the Steelers may be forced to crawl back to either Keisel or Hood and attempt to address the position again in the draft, although there may be a couple of defensive end candidates among free agents that could come in and start.

Jim Wexell and others wrote earlier this offseason that in addition to meeting with several defensive backs, the Steelers also met with most of the top defensive end candidates at the Combine, which could be revealing as to their plans going forward. It’s not ideal to use another high-round pick on the position after using two first-rounders there since 2009, but it may be the road we’re headed down.

Unlike Woods, the Steelers apparently didn’t have Dwyer and Johnson in their plans. I had expected that they might be interested in retaining both, so while it reshapes my thoughts on what the Steelers might do, it evidently doesn’t alter their plans.

At tight end, they do have the top two positions on the depth chart locked up with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth. While David Paulson is still on the roster, I suspect that they would still like to upgrade from him. I thought that Johnson could be that player, as he was the second tight end behind Miller before he was lost for the season. The Steelers have been connected to Jermichael Finley, who has yet to be cleared to play.

At running back, the Steelers must now be on the lookout for a complementary piece for Le’Veon Bell, because even though they reportedly would like to re-sign LaRod Stephens-Howling, he not only is not ‘change of pace’ back, but also must prove that he’s healthy after tearing his ACL.

There are still quite a few free agent running backs available, such as former Cincinnati Bengals Brian Leonard and Bernard Scott. Even LeGarrette Blount is available, but I have a hard time seeing them being interested.

As of now, the running back position would seem to be a top priority come draft time. Don’t mistake top priority with high-round pick, however, as they don’t need the invest a high pick to get a quality back.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • srdan

    I am a bit baffled at letting Woods walk. Granted he got a decent chunk of change for what he is. Even if Kiesel is back, we can’t expect more than a year out of him. He was on skates last year. The two reserves mentioned in the article are unknown, thus trusting them to do much this year is not prudent. That takes us to the draft…but how long does it take even a first round pick to make the field at DE?

    I guess what we have left is:
    1 Bring ziggy back
    2 Sign Kiesel to mentor a rookie
    3 Free agent DE
    4 Free agent NG (cody?) and slide Mclendon outside?

    I am not enamored with any of those.

  • dgh57

    If the draft were being held tomorrow we would be tipping our hand big time as to where were going in the draft and I don’t think they want to do that. Which leaves me to believe something will be done prior to the draft to fill those holes at DE and RB.

  • dkoy85

    Letting Woods walk kinda put a damper on everything that has happened. Who knows, maybe they have some big plans and retaining Woods wasn’t in them?

  • Caesar

    People need to leave Cody alone. The Ravens don’t let people who can play go that easily. If they don’t want him, then neither do I. Plus I remember being highly unimpressed watching him at Alabama. Got pushed around way too easily and often for a guy his size.

  • steeltown

    This game is won in the trenches… at this point, if Hood is not retained, I’d be OK with them drafting DL early again and going CB and WR in the 2nd and 3rd

  • srdan

    Maybe you didin’t read the last sentence of my post.

  • srdan

    Are there prospects worth the pick?

  • Caesar

    I read it, I am just even more than “not enamored.” I think he should just be wiped from the conversation, I’d prefer to just give Fangupo a shot and see what he can do. So let’s just agree that we both think bringing on Terrance Cody is a bad plan!


    definitely not in the Ziggy back camp – we need to cut our losses there.
    I think option 4 is the way to go (not sure about the NT being Cody, though) but I would rather we draft a NT in rd 3 or 4 as there are 3 good quality NTs to be had. McClendon definitely outside. Supplement option 4 with #2 and bring Keisel back one more year to rotate in.

  • SteelerFan11

    Resign Hood, bring Keisel back at the vet minimum and to be more of role player and leader rather than starter. Do this and our defensive line isn’t that bad

  • srdan

    I look at everything in a way that it has a price. I don’t like manny sanders, but there is a price that I would be willing to pay to keep him here. Same with Cody. It’s not necessarily either of their talents that are needed, but they fill a need to the best ability of our cap situation.

    But I agree, just because he is a big man, it doesn’t make him a good NT.

  • steeltown

    True there really aren’t many good fits… Nix or Hageman I guess with a trade back.. maybe they target some of the 3rd-4th Rd guys. This thing just got a whole lot more interesting.

  • srdan

    True, a combo of any of those is the likeliest possibility.

    We as fans, especially the ones that never played football (I didn’t) tend to slot players into positions due to their size. Meaning, I just say move McClendon outside. I actually have no base to know or realize how hard this is to do in real life. His stature makes sense at DE.


    srdan, I did play thru 10th grade but not sure that really helps, LOL!!!!
    McClendon it could be argued is more natural at DE in a 3-4 than at NT where it is generally accepted that he is out of position.
    His greatest strength is pass rush, and having him opposite Heyward with a TRUE NT in the middle, in combo with Worilds and a hopefully improved JJ could be a pretty serious pass rush!!


    Here’s an alternative…… Why not move McClendon to his more natural position at DE, draft a NT (which there are several good quality NTs that could be had in rd3 or 4), bring Keisel back for 1 year for rotation, done.

  • steeltown

    Very true, but then you are starting a rookie 3rd-4th Rd draft pick in the middle of the Defense

  • lone pistol

    I have a little concern because of depth and knowlege of system, but woods was a back up and he had potential to be decent but i don’t think he is a star in the making just a good back up maby a ok starter, and dwyer was a average back up at best i was never sold on him as being anything else, I think a back up running back and back up line man is replace able and trust the front office to be able to hand that situation, i am still happy with the direction of the off season


    We were looking so good early this off-season with the restructuring of Antonio Brown’s and Troy Polamalu’s contracts (assuring Polamalu would retire with the Steelers) and with the re-signing Will Allen as well. We also started to look pretty good while dabbling early in the free agency market (with the signing of Mike Mitchell), but all that ‘looking good’ ended soon after that with the loss of RB Johnathan Dwyer and DL Al Woods to free agency. Also, with Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood looking elsewhere for bigger contracts than the Steelers are willing to offer them, as of now, leaving Cameron Heyward as pretty much the only decent defensive lineman on the team, once again the Steelers may get the short-end of the stick when all is said and done with free agency in 2014. The Steelers normally don’t go for too many players from the free agency market, but this year they may have to do just that and do it soon.

    This is the ‘thinnest’ the Steelers been in a while as far as linebackers and defensive linemen are concerned. They are in much need of depth on the defensive side of the ball as the Steelers will surely incure injuries in 2014 as all teams in the league will. With hardly no true starters that can really anchor the defensive line, it will be another year of shifting guys around in and out of position. Shifting guys around is something the Steelers have done well over the years when injuries come into play, but that was also back when they had great depth at those positions.

    Again, with the loss of Dwyer from the offense, they are becoming thinner there as well. We’d better hope the draft treats us well or we could be looking at another losing season. Not only do the Steelers need to get lucky in the draft with at least one great pick for our defensive line and one great pick for our secondary, but now, we need a great pick at the RB possition just to add depth there behind LeVeon Bell. Johnathan Dwyer had experience and was a real work-horse. Now, if the Steelers can’t get a polished RB through free agency, they’ll have to settle with trying to get a RB through the draft with a pick that could have better been used for a defensive player. A young RB through the draft with no prior experience in the NFL? A young kid who will be forced to step-in and learn the ropes as a starter should Bell get injured? Not good.

    Who knows what will happen between now and the free agency deadline, but the quality players are going fast, folks. We need to make drastic moves and we need to make them quickly. As always, money will be the issue. That’s never a good thing when it concerns the Steelers.

  • srdan

    All, I gotta say, is that we are lucky that Hayward is who he has become. While his sample of games is not huge, I think he will be talked as one of the best 3/4 DE in the game this year. He is a manimal.

  • Callentown

    Ha!! I’ve been saying this for months now and each time Dave and the majority of this board rake me, saying McClendon was good at NT last year and he was not the problem.

    He was serviceable at best and should be moved. We will see what the Steelers think of this soon enough.

  • Callentown

    This team needs a NT.

  • Steve

    What basis do you say Mac would be better at DE? Because what you hear here, well thats Bull. Mac is a NT and he is ours. He did a very good job last year and has not played DE with us.

  • srdan

    The Nix thing is making more sense now. Colbert has been on record saying that this is one of the deepest drafts. We don’t have a third (yet), so trading back seems like a real possibility if htey like Nix.

    But trading back for a team that has had players fall in their lap (JJ and decastro) in recent years, seems out of character.

    Love this time of year!

  • AndyR34

    The sky is falling…the sky is falling…run for your lives!

  • Milliken Steeler

    I wouldnt have an issue with them grabbing the 6’8″ and 360 LB Daniel McCullers and trying him at nose tackle as he probably could be had in the 5th or 6th round.

  • PA2AK

    I think Mac is pretty we’ll suited for DE. Problem the Steelers have is…who else could they find that would even be close to serviceable for this season at NT? They have a much better shot at working something out at DE.

  • Callentown

    NT, along with the OLB position are staples of this defense. They need a true NT that takes up two blockers and pushes the pocket back. Any other approach is going to cause issues.

    This should be, and may be a huge priority. Guess we’ll find out soon enough.

  • James Kling

    Hood’s gone.

  • James Kling


  • Kenneth Wilt

    For me right now, our starting Dline as of this writing would be Heyward/Fangupo/McLendon. That line is really inexperienced. Heyward nor McLendon started until last year, and Fangupo, while older, hasn’t started yet. The backups, Arnfelt and N. Williams, have exactly 2 snaps between them all from Arnfelt. I don’t know what to think, but I think they should bring Keisel back at the vet minimum and potentially sign a UFA veteran who can either be NT or DE.

    If you do this, you can avoid this as a high draft position, carry 7 guys and get some of the young guys some experience.

    Sadly a position I felt really good about now looks like it needs work.


    Don’t get me wrong, I too think he did a very good job – for a player playing out of position. I like McClendon and think the interest he got last FA season shows that he has value. And yes, NT and DE require very different skill sets which kind of leads into my main point.
    PFF did a study several months back (with one of their 8,000 metrics) that showed Mc got moved back off the ball further than just about any NT in the league. That can’t happen in this defense as I’m sure you know given your experience (I was a OG in high school, for what it’s worth). He’s not the HUGE NT sucking up two and three blockers that we need. His greatest attribute is his ability to rush the passer and it was hoped that he would provide that from the inside last year. Even if he had a great sack year for a NT, no way they succeed with the NT playing from 3, 4, 5 yards back off the line of scrimmage. His size, pass rushing ability, and (to a degree) strength at point of contact would seem to make him a 5 technique for sure.
    In addition to the fact that finding a good quality NT is something that can be done MUCH later than a good quality 3-4 DE in the draft.
    It just makes sense and at 6’4″, 320, strong and quick he is perfect for that spot.

  • Steve

    Disagree – Don’t see that 6-4 320 is not Big enough. Yes Mac is quick and can hold his own along the D line. Don’t see him playing DE in our 3-4. A lot here were on the Nix band wagon, that I don’t see happening. Nix downsized because of knee problems. PFF is Bullshit. Our problem last year was running around the ends and not up the middle.


    Well, Steve, guess we will have to agree to disagree. Mac is a good player and there are some good rookie DEs in the draft but the results speak for themselves, although Hood was terrible and probably accounted for much of the run problem just by himself! Agree with you on Nix and he is NOT the NT I would want because he has had a drop in his last year and injuries to boot, so don’t disagree because you think I am pushing for Nix, I am not.
    I like Carrethers from Ark St, McCullers from Tenn, or Ellis from LaTech for us – preferably McCullers in rd 3 or 4.

  • shawn

    they might have to do just that …. but very disappointed they won’t get an impact player in the 1st like Ebron or Gilbert

  • shawn

    Yes he is !

  • PA2AK

    absolutely agree. I just think the problem the Steelers are having is balancing the act of fielding a solid unit that will compete this year with filling some critical holes for the following years. I don’t think there is a FA or draft prospect that can start for us at NT this year better than McLendon, unfortunately. Whereas, they have a what appears to be a much better shot at filling in the DE spot.

  • steelster

    Would henry melton be the right fit for the steelers?


    Hey, Steve! Check out Behind The Steel Curtain – they are running an article on this very topic, since the Steelers are checking into SD NT Cam Thomas. Talks directly about new NT, moving Mac to DE.

  • Steve

    Thanks – was never on that site before, will give me some more Steelers articles to read.

  • Steve

    Steeler were # 2 in the league with runners going up the gut, Fact!

  • Callentown

    Okay Steve, Let’s see it.

  • Steve

    Steelers D allowed 2.88 YPC in 2013 on 109 plays scored going up the middle and that ranked them 2nd in the league. You can read this in “Cam Thomas would not be an upgrade over Steve McClendon” put out by Dave yesterday on this site. Check it out!

  • Callentown

    Ah, you’re using Dave’s numbers. PFF has the Steelers much lower – 23rd I think. But then, as Dave says, stats are meaningless .. lol. Probably not safe to call them facts.

    Point is Steve, LeBeau has stated before and recently that the defense is designed for a NT that sucks up two blockers and can push the pocket back. No one is saying Mac did that last season because he didn’t. He did the best he could do but would be a stronger DE.

  • Steve

    Was a nose tackle myself in the same D. Was quick off the ball and smart. Why tie up 2 blocker when you can sack the QB or make the tackle? PFF says our D was 23rd. Were talking about up the gut and thats the facts. Better watch out or Davey is gonna get ya.