After two straight seasons of equivalent wins and losses, it’s certainly no surprise that the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been busier and more active than usual in their efforts to reshape a middling roster into a true competitor.
The past few months could be fairly described as a season of change amid the shifting fates of a franchise that had just been to the Super Bowl three times in the very recent past. It may well be that past success that has helped drag them down of late.
Of course, selecting late in the draft annually doesn’t help, nor do the big contracts going out to the players that helped you reach that success. But the true death knell has been an unwillingness to recognize when to let go.
The Steelers had hoped to hold together that championship core for a while longer, but the last two seasons have been the wake-up call necessary to introduce the wave of change that we’ve seen this offseason, designed to steer the organization back in the right direction.
When wide receiver Mike Wallace departed in free agency a season ago, it left open a void that allowed those who had been waiting in the wings behind him to advance and make more significant contributions to the offense.
The result was the most total touchdowns caught by a Steelers wide receiver unit in the franchise’s history.
16 of those touchdowns came from the two receivers who perhaps benefitted most from Wallace’s departure, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.
With Wallace gone, the then fourth-year pro Sanders got his first opportunity to be a regular starter in his career, and he turned in his best season yet, albeit somewhat modest by modern standards. Of particular note was the six touchdown passes he caught.
Cotchery, previously relegated to injury replacement time or the rare occasions that the Steelers used four receivers, finally got the opportunity to contribute regularly in the slot, and his rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was quite evident.
Cotchery reeled in a career-high 10 touchdowns, a feat likely never achieved by a slot receiver with the Steelers before.
Now, both of those veterans are gone, finding more lucrative offers elsewhere during free agency, and some new faces will be trying to duplicate their production.
The Steelers signed veteran slot receiver Lance Moore in free agency, a player much like Cotchery in terms of experience and savvy, though he has neither the size nor blocking ability of the latter. Still, he has proven to be a reliable possession player over the years.
The bigger question mark comes in the starting lineup, with the Steelers turning to second-year former third-round draft pick Markus Wheaton.
Wheaton was limited during his rookie season for a myriad of reasons, and he was limited to just six catches as a result. He has less experience than either Wallace or Antonio Brown had when they took larger roles in their second seasons, but that’s all part of the spirit of change sweeping the facilities this offseason.