Sunday, March 17, 2013

Steelers Free Agency Decisions Creating Due And Undue Criticism

“I don’t view it as dramatically different than other years,” Rooney told Steelers reporters on Thursday and as reported by Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “The recent history is, we face decisions like this almost every year in terms of making decisions on players who made key contributions. I always say, every year is a new jigsaw puzzle and you have to put together the pieces the best way you can and shaping contracts is a big part of that."

There are a few pieces missing to that puzzle. Several key free agents have decided to leave the friendly confines of Heinz Field for greener pastures, or at least what they think will be greener, prompting the head coach of his team, Mike Tomlin, to say recently, "I'm concerned about a myriad of things." As he should be. This very well could be a watershed year for the triumvirate of Rooney, Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert. Now, add to that, one more player may be leaving.

“I have NOT been offered anything. Balls out of my court. All I can do is continue to grind and trust the {Man} above. He has the plan for me...," restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders said on his Facebook account. “If they do offer then I will have a HUGE decision to make. But that's not the case right now. The Pats are interested and it's just that at this point.” (Brackets ours)

Sanders isn't yet a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers free agency sieve, an exodus that has seen playmakers on both sides of the ball depart for other locales, but he still could be. In other words, New England is weighing options regarding their wide receiver (Brandon Lloyd) and draft picks (five) issues. By placing a $1.323 million tender on Sanders, the Steelers have the right to match any offer from the Patriots. The Steelers would also get their 2013 third-round draft pick (91) as compensation if they lose him.

If Sanders does go to New England, the Steelers would be left with Antonio Brown as the only remaining member of the "Young Money Crew" that was supposed to do so much. Instead, the only wide receivers on the roster with game experience would be Plaxico Burress, who will be 36 next season, and Jerricho Cotchery, who has been underutilized (just 33 receptions) in two seasons with the Steelers. That just wouldn't be enough.

A Sanders departure would mean losing a more-than-solid slot man who caught 44 passes and led the Steelers with a 14.2 yards-per-catch average. According to stats.com, Sanders was tied for 17th in the league last year with a '70.5 Clutch Reception Percentage (minimum 40 Total Receptions).' He's an above average blocker and route runner.

Unfortunately, as Neil McCauley said, "there's a flip side to that coin." Sanders has had problems staying healthy. After leaving Super Bowl XLV against the Packers early with a foot injury, he followed that up by having surgery on both feet to repair fractures. Sanders also suffered from fumbling issues in 2012. His was one of the eight fumbles in the Steelers' piss-poor performance in the eight-turnover Cleveland Browns game at Cleveland 20-14 loss. He fumbled twice overall last season and lost both of them.

Regardless, another loss of a playmaker could ultimately be crippling for the Steelers next season. They're in a strong AFC North division that just so happens to have the NFL champions. The margin for error in this draft infinitesimal. There will be no grading on a curve. Only 21 (22 if Sanders stays) out of the last 59 players drafted, spanning the Bill Cowher and Tomlin eras, are still with the team, and none from the 2008 draft class. So the need for playmakers and core players is prodigious.

Ones who would replace such game-changing players as Mike Wallace and Sanders, James Harrison and Keenan Lewis. (UPDATE: One who could provide such help is former Denver Broncos OLB and free agent Elvis Dumervil. With the Steelers having approximately $8 million space under the Salary Cap, this is at least feasible. There is also interest in former Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw. But the Steelers already have one AB, and Bradshaw's injury history dictates he should only be signed at the veteran minimum and if he comes with his own insurance policy.)

Lewis had a fairly lockdown-like season where he had 71 tackles, 23 passes defended and only allowed three touchdown passes. I personally have been enamored of Lewis since all of the buzz in Training Camp his rookie season. He finally showed what his potential could be in 2011 when playing as a Nickel defensive back.

Lewis then emerged in 2012 and was a great compliment to Ike Taylor. To show how much faith the coaches had in Lewis, they allowed then-starter William Gay to leave, cementing Lewis as the starter. Also, Taylor used to take the opponent's No. 1 receiver. The emergence of Lewis, however, allowed him to roam the right side most of the season.

Whether you feel that Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and company were wrong in letting Lewis go or not, the Steelers definitely took a step back and made a mistake not even offering a contract, to listen to Lewis tell it, to four-year veteran: "I will miss my steelers fans, but they didn't offer me a deal. Sean Payton believe in me. I love him as a coach. Made me feel comfortable. I love that man. He is a king. I respect him so much!" - http://tinyurl.com/ctzcr6v

Not even making an offer to him means they like what they see in second-year cornerback Cortez Allen, who locked down Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski in 2011 (his rookie season), and forced six turnovers in three games at thw end of 2012 (his second season). Fine, but the loss of Lewis also means the loss of a quality Nickel/slot defensive back. Unless you count William Gay. Regardless, his value hasn't gone unnoticed, neither by the coaches nor the national media as Pro Football Focus has Allen ranked as the second-most undervalued player the Steelers have. - http://tinyurl.com/bvwx6ov

Regardless, the quartet of Curtis Brown, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Josh Victorian, Justin King and Robert Golden (who could be moved to safety) are all put on notice and their learning curve just shortened greatly. While it wasn't by any means an embarrassment of riches, it is most definitely an unknown commodity now.

So, whether you stand on the side of Lewis being an 'emerging star' or a 'one-hit wonder', his loss hurts the Steelers secondary, and as Kevin Colbert said, 'players who once looked unavailable in free agency, unaffordable, suddenly become available.'

The loss of Harrison, though, doesn't hurt...as in opponents won't get hurt as much when playing the Steelers. Harrison put out more lights than The Clapper and put more men to sleep than Ambien. The Steelers will miss his ferocity, toughness and playmaking. The depth behind him being suspect at best.

The one that the Steelers would miss the least is Sanders.

Sure, from a depth standpoint it's a major loss, especially when coupled with Wallace taking his talents to South Beach. However, with Sanders never completely living up to the potential expected, it is entirely possible the Steelers don't match the Patriots' offer. After all, it would result in a third-round pick and the erstwhile "Young Money Crew" were all taken in the third round or later: Wallace and Sanders were both third-rounders and Brown went in the sixth.

The Steelers' brass has certainly had to make some difficult, albeit bewildering at times, decisions this offseason. I have faith in them, but it isn't blind faith. When the last of Chuck Noll's players finally left, Cowher had losing seasons - is the same coming for Tomlin? Though I don't believe that to be the case, reverse several turnovers or get more of their own and 8-8 could have been 11-5, it is still a possibility.

Usually the seeds they plant are in fine soil, but this offseason has yet to yield any fine fruit. If much more is allowed to happen, if any more players are cut or are allowed to walk, Steeler Nation all may end up drinking the bitter wine of sour grapes.

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TIDBITS: PLAYERS GAINED:

Larry Foote - ILB = three years ($5.5 million, $2.5 million guaranteed)

Plaxico Burress - WR = one year veteran-minimum deal ($940,000)

Greg Warren - LS = one year veteran-minimum deal ($840,000)

Bruce Gradkowski - QB = three years (details yet unrevealed)

David Johnson - TE = one year (details yet unrevealed)

William Gay - CB = three years ($4.5 million)

Isaac Redman - RB = RFA tender ($1.323 million)

Jonathan Dwyer - RB = RFA tender ($1.323 million)

Baron Batch - RB = ERFA tender ($555,000)

DeMarcus Van Dyke - CB = ERFA tender ($555,000)

Ramon Foster - OL = three years ($6 million)

Matt Spaeth - TE = Mark Kaboly reports the Steelers' third-round pick in 2007 appears set to rejoin the organization if he passes a physical Monday.


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PLAYERS LOST:

Mike Wallace - WR = UFA, New team: Miami Dolphins - five-year deal ($60 million)

Keenan Lewis - CB = UFA, New team: New Orleans Saints - five-year deal ($26 million)

Rashard Mendenhall - RB = UFA, New team: Arizona Cardinals - one-year deal ($2.5 million)

Ryan Mundy - S = UFA (New York Giants)

Willie Colon - OL = June 1st release designation; New York Jets - one-year deal ($1.2 million deal)

James Harrison - OLB = No team yet; Cap savings of $5.1 million