Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Steelers Aged Defense - Legacy or Lethargy? Pt. 2

by Jason and Jayden

“In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity." - Albert Einstein

In part one of this article series we talked about the crossroads the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves at as they set to enter the 2014 NFL year. There are several players, especially on defense, that, byway of age, performance, contract issues or all of the above, won't be in Black and Gold next season. - http://tinyurl.com/lahvp57

A few of the players involved have built such a résumé that have made them beloved by the fan base. Beloved to the point of making it abundantly clear that the word "fan" does in fact come from the word "fanatic." Those fanatics, as well, don't like seeing their heroes treated as anything but reverentially. There's only one problem with such reverence, though: this is a business and Father Time is undefeated.

Looking at the first part of that, If It Ain't Steel noted in part one that the Steelers are once again facing Salary Cap problems. Early in the season, however, they weren't expected to be in as big of a bind at only approximately $4 million over the Cap.

Well, two in-season restructures and a mid-season signing were chiefly responsible in changing that. So with next year's Cap projected at $126.3 million, the Steelers, with only 43 players under contract for 2014 so far (remembering the Rule of 51), sit at approximately $9.3 million over the Salary Cap. ($4,552,933 in dead money + contracts = $135,572,583). Here's Ian Whetstone's breakdown: https://pitt.box.com/s/q75myyihriwumrcgk5ry

(ASIDE: A late December CBSSports.com article had the number higher at $10,528,419, but cited no hard numbers. Our regular readers know we've always stood behind Whetstone, and we do so here as well.)

Getting back briefly to the Rule of 51, eight players are still needed to round that out. That means more will have to be budgeted for those players, unless you simply take the top 51 from Whetstone's breakdown. Whether that's done or if we assume an approximate number of $4 million for them, either way we arrive at over a $13 million overage.

Monies and players must be cut.

That brings us to Father Time and his spotless record. His victories lately have included certain revered Steelers players, and will again this year. Previously, we said that there was a good chance LaMarr Woodley would not be back, that Ryan Clark certainly wouldn't be back and that Troy Polamalu likely would return.

Now we face the likely departure of another fan favorite in Brett Keisel, who joined the Steelers as a seventh-round draft pick in 2002. He became a full-time starter in 2006 after Kimo Von Oelhoffen left town following the 2005 Super Bowl championship season.

"The Diesel" is now 35 years old and just finished his 12th and what is likely his final season.

"It's possible. I feel like I can still play," Keisel said. "I know it's a business. ... You hate thinking about the end and not being able to do it.” - http://tinyurl.com/nxttsqd

He did make the case that, yes, he can still play. Though he never had huge numbers - part of the job description - Keisel started in 12 games (4 were missed due to plantar fasciitis) this season and recorded four sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one pass defended and several quarterback pressures.

But holding on to his fellow DE Aaron Smith too long hurt the team before, and they can't let the same thing happen again.

Keisel, like Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Hines Ward before him, won't likely be offered a one-year contract to return. While offering a Larry Foote-type deal or a veteran minimum is possible, we believe the Steelers will shave "The Beard."

The Steelers converted the rest of Ike Taylor's base salary into a signing bonus back in October. Doing so allowed the Steelers to spread the Cap hit over 2013 and 2014, Taylor's final contract year. His 2014 Cap hit will now be $11.942 million, or, because of a $7 million base salary, it would cost the Steelers $4.942 million in dead money to release him.

That is relevant because the Steelers over the years have routinely had Taylor to shadow opposing team's best receiver, which has generally been to the Steelers' advantage. However, the 33-year old Taylor has hit the career wall in this his 11th season, grading out 107th among 111 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' cornerback ratings, and dead last purely in pass coverage.

Taylor hasn't been the same since that disastrous 2011 playoff performance in Denver, where he allowed receptions of 51 and 58 yards and then the 80-yard game-winner on the first play in overtime. A big part of playing cornerback is playing with confidence, and it seems like Taylor guessed a lot on the field this season.

Coming out of college, Taylor was clocked at a 4.18/40. At the age of 33, Taylor is having trouble keeping up with wide receivers, as the PFF statistics bear out. As a result, he has either gotten burned (see Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon) or he is putting his hands on receivers more often.

His Cap hit is the third highest on the team next season and he will be 34 in May. That is a lot of money to pay a cornerback with hands of stone. The idea of moving him to safety is a good one, though. - http://tinyurl.com/lxxhzk8

However, the question is at what amount that could be done. Unless Taylor accepts an incentive-laden contract or the vet min, at either CB or FS position, we believe they would release him.

Yes, these are difficult decisions to be made, but the opportunity is there to rebuild a once proud defense through allowing players to move on and let their legacy be cemented, and to get younger at key positions so as to reinvigorate said pride. But it must be done now.

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TIDBITS: Steelers add four more to Reserve/Future contracts list:  cornerback Devin Smith, linebacker Dan Molls, running back Miguel Maysonet and wide receiver Lanear Sampson.