The offseason is usually a quiet time for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As the big names sign elsewhere, the front office just goes about its business, retaining its own free agents and allowing other teams to spend to their hearts desire in an attempt to purchase a Lombardi trophy.
This offseason, however, was different. Indeed, the Steelers have retained almost all of their key free agent targets. Cornerbacks William Gay and Ross Cockrell are inked for 2016, both on team-friendly contracts. The front office also retained key offensive linemen Ramon Foster, securing the left guard position for the foreseeable future. Depth wide receiver and special teams player, Darrius Heyward-Bey was re-signed, as well.
THE SECONDARY WAS ADDRESSED (SORT OF?)
The secondary, while still a concern, was addressed adequately in the re-signing of Gay. Gay’s play in 2015 was up and down but was serviceable on the whole. The contract itself is extraordinarily team friendly in its 3 year, $7.5M term. Gay almost assuredly would have garnered more on the free agent market. Gay did not allow a touchdown in 2015, but had his issues between the 20’s, so to speak. There still needs to be an infusion of youth and talent at the position, but the re-signing of Gay gives the organization options in the draft. While I still do believe Gay would be best utilized as a slot cornerback and may be out of his element on the boundary, it is becoming increasingly clear the coaching staff views him as a boundary corner whose locker room leadership and play in the redzone is something to be coveted.
Eric Weddle chose to sign with the Baltimore Ravens. Weddle was seen by fans and media alike as a possible match for an ailing Steelers secondary. His versatility and talent on the back-end of a defense was something to be coveted, but Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports reported the Steelers did not formally offer him a contract and decided to focus their efforts elsewhere in free agency. While not overly surprising, it’s unfortunate the Steelers lost out on the Weddle sweepstakes.
The re-signing of Cockrell was an underrated move from the front office. Cockrell wasn’t great at any point this season, but he has upside and room for growth. He did not cost the Steelers anything to pick up (was obtained from the Bills via free agency) and was signed to a one-year, $600K deal for the 2016 season. Cockrell comes back as the team’s boundary cornerback opposite Gay heading into training camp, though this has the ability to change depending on the first round of the draft. Even if Cockrell were to lose his starting job to a rookie, he brings experience in the scheme and some depth to a position that sorely needs it.
It’s interesting to point out, however, that cornerback Brandon Boykin remains a free agent to this point. I have pounded the table a number of times for him to return to the organization in a starting capacity, and view his play as the best of the group of defensive backs when given the opportunity. Should the price be right, Boykin should be retained for the 2016 season. Depth and talent at a position that is one of the only blemishes on the team is not a bad thing.
WELCOME BACK, RAMON
Foster may have had somewhat of a down season in 2015, particularly in the run game, but provides stability and continuity to the interior of the line alongside All-Pro’s Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. Foster is also a steady locker room presence and, like Gay, provides draft flexibility. Had Foster not been retained, there are plenty of options still remaining on the market, but none of which bring the kind of talent Foster does to the position. Continuity is a key part of offensive line play, something the Steelers desperately missed in 2015 with injuries to both Pouncey and starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum.
STEELERS MOVE TO A MOVE TIGHT END
I love Heath Miller. He was the pillar of stability, class and production for a decade. His ability on the field was only outdone by his actions off the field. He was, for all intents and purposes, the epitome of a Pittsburgh Steeler.
He was also perhaps the only weak point on an otherwise ludicrously talented offensive unit.
If one were to nitpick and choose an area of weakness on the offense, it would have to be at tight end. The talent at the skill positions on offense is unmatched anywhere else in the league. All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell lead the way, followed by receivers Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates. Rounding out the group is receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and ‘back DeAngelo Williams. The group is the deepest, most talented unit in football.
Then, the front office decided to add a little bit more speed and talent to the group.
Ladarius Green has inked a 4 year, $20 million dollar contract with the Steelers to be the tight end of the future. Well, the immediate future at any rate. Green will be 26 before the start of the 2016 season with immense upside. At the combine, Green ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at 6’6″ and 240 lbs. He’s a freak athlete that is capable of bringing more speed and athleticism to an offense that already oozes with it. Green brings talent and speed down the seam, an area in which the Steelers’ offense struggled to exploit with any consistency because of Miller’s shortcomings as a receiver.
This organization has never had a tight end with the ability of Green. He’s not a force in the run game or blocking, but is best utilized as a weapon down the seam and across the middle capable of creating mismatches against linebackers. Miller may have been quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s safety blanket for years, but Green has the capability of providing safety in a similar sense and then some.
Make no mistake, however – Green is not going to be a weapon in the blocking game like Miller was. Part of what made Miller so beloved among Steelers fans was his ability to be violent in the run game to help create holes and make downfield blocks on screens. Green is a capable, but unspectacular blocker who can be quickly manhandled by bigger, more athletic defensive ends. Green is likely always going to struggle in this area, but tight end Matt Spaeth is on the roster for a reason. One player can not replicate what Miller brought to this offense and attempting to make this happen would be a mistake. For this reason, the front office saw fit to give their future Hall of Fame quarterback another weapon down the middle.
The signing of Green also opens up, once again, draft flexibility. Prior to the signing, NFL draft media seemed infatuated with connecting Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry to the Steelers at #25. Like many, I always severed the connection. I simply did not see Henry as a first round tight end and certainly did not see the fit to the Steelers. The Green signing all but eliminates the possibility.
As mentioned prior, LaCanfora reported the front office did not formally offer Weddle a contract and instead pursued other ventures in free agency. It is assumed one of these other ventures was pursuing free agent left tackle Rusell Okung from the Seattle Seahawks.
I will admit: this one caught me a little off-guard when it was first reported. The play of Alejandro Villanueva was good enough for me to be comfortable heading into next season as him entrenched as the starting left tackle. His rawness at the position could be excused because of his extreme unfamiliarity and recent change from defensive end to the offensive line. The front office clearly disagrees.
Protecting Roethlisberger’s blindside is of the utmost importance, particularly in this stage of his career and with the arsenal around him. Okung, a former Pro Bowl tackle, brings experience and talent with him to a zone scheme he is best suited to play in. Okung’s athleticism and ability when healthy has been impressive in his career. There have been questions surrounding whether or not he has lived up to his draft selection, but none of this is of any importance to the Steelers. As a free agent, the expectations around Okung will simply be if he can adequately protect Roethlisberger’s blindside.
Okung met with Mike Munchak yesterday (Monday, the 14th). As of this current moment he has not signed a contract with the Steelers. If I had to guess, I would say he does indeed sign with the organization on a decent term for between $4.5 – $6.5 million annually.
BUSINESS AS USUAL (AND BOOMIN’)
The growing trend here among all of the free agents either retained or signed is the idea of draft flexibility. The front office did not want their hands forced into taking a specific position in the first round. The signings open up any number of key positions to be taken in the first round of the draft. Cornerback, defensive tackle/end, outside linebacker and pass rusher all seem to be at the top of their lists right now.
I did not want to formally comment on this, but because of the extreme backlash wide receiver Martavis Bryant has received after news leaked of his year-long suspension, I feel obligated to. Look, Bryant has made a colossal mistake. He knows this, the organization knows this, and everyone surrounding the two know this. Fan outrage on the subject has been completely out of control. Here’s what we know: Bryant failed to participate in league-mandated drug tests and has been suspended a year as a result. Bryant has struggled with this in the past and received mentoring from his teammates and the organization itself. That’s it. Everything else on the topic is pure speculation and should be ignored as a result. Fans hurling insults and chiding him may be their right as fans, but it is also our right to ignore such nonsense.
It is disappointing that the offense will not have one of its biggest weapons on the field in the 2016 season. More important, however, is ensuring Bryant get healthy and in the correct state of mind to have a long, successful career with the Steelers and life beyond football.
Get well, Martavis. We’ll see you back in 2017.