Steelers Prepare To Make Personnel Decisions

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Mike Mitchell intercepts Carson Palmer during an October game against the Cardinals at Heinz Field. Photo from http://www.post-gazette.com

Sometimes the changes that need to be made the most are not the ones that seem to be the most obvious. When changes are made, it’s important that they are made with rational thought rather than letting emotions be the driving force behind the decision. The unit for the Steelers that raised the most emotional reactions this past season was the Steelers secondary, and the player who elicited the most of those reactions was number 41, Antwon Blake. Blake, who may be the Steelers most physical presence in the secondary, didn’t exactly have the best season if you go by the numbers, but then again, he was filling a role he was never intended to serve in, as a starting cornerback, because of injuries. Suffering a broken thumb against the Cardinals certainly didn’t help his cause either. For all the times he was exposed by bigger receivers, Blake did more than a few good things as well. Most people though, have the memories of AJ Green, victimizing him multiple times, stuck in their minds as an encapsulation of his overall performance.

On the season, Blake had 76 tackles and a forced fumble, along with a sack. He also registered 2 interceptions, one in which he returned 70 yards for a touchdown. Where some see a complete failure of a season from an inept player, others see it as a result of him being forced into a starting role as a cornerback due to injuries. During spot duty in sub-packages, Blake has always been dependable, but much like the early careers of Willie Gay and DeShae Townsend, Blake struggled when forced into a starting role. Once Brandon Boykin started seeing action, everyone’s performance in the secondary stabalized, including Blake’s, whose tackling ability returned as his broken thumb healed up. While the call to cut him loose may seem obvious, Blake has all the physical attributes to be converted to safety, especially if the Steelers elect to part ways with Will Allen. Antwon Blake is just one of 20 free agents that the Steelers have to make decisions on during the offseason.

Free agent list from http://www.steelers.com:

QBs

Bruce Gradkowski
Mike Vick

RBs/FBs
Will Johnson
Jordan Todman

WRs
Darrius Heyward-Bey
David Nelson

OFFENSIVE LINE
Kelvin Beachum
Ramon Foster
Doug Legursky
Byron Stingily

DEFENSIVE LINE
Clifton Geathers
Steve McLendon
Cam Thomas

LBs
Sean Spence

DBs
Will Allen
Antwon Blake
Brandon Boykin
Will Gay
Robert Golden

LONG-SNAPPER
Greg Warren

Another interesting scenerio is what the Steelers may decide to do about Kelvin Beachum. There is one school of thought that his injury is a blessing in disguise, that the Steelers could get him cheaper because of it. The other is, that the performance of Alejandro Villanueva has given the Steelers the ability to let Beachum explore other options. Last year at this time, Villanueva was still a defensive end, and a few years prior, his position was wide receiver. Common sense says, that as well as he played at left tackle in his first season at the position, he will only get better because of his background and work ethic. While Beachum has developed into one of the best in the game, There are benefits to letting him walk, the most immediate being that the Steelers would have more cap flexibility going with the cheaper Villanueva. At this point, that just might be the right call, as the Steelers also have to figure out what to do with Ramon Foster. Retaining Foster should be viewed as more of a priority than Beachum, thanks to the development of Villanueva. For added depth and flexibility, the Steelers should also bring back Doug Legursky, who has the ability to play every spot along the interior of the line.

Sean Spence has worked hard to get where he is at, overcoming what was viewed as a potential career ending injury. While he may not stand out, he is steady, dependable and the kind of player that the Steelers need to keep around. Cam Thomas on the other hand, doesn’t appear to do much of anything that benefits the defense in any way, other than taking up a roster spot. Parting ways with Thomas would be addition by subtraction, as his 11 tackles wouldn’t be hard to replace. When it comes to Darrius Heyward-Bey, his biggest attribute comes on special teams. Sure he has made some clutch catches, but he has dropped more critical passess than he has corralled. Sure he has been a leader and a good teammate, but the Steelers need more than that out of a number four receiver, and with the semi-emergence of Sammie Coates during the playoff game in Denver, he seems to have more to offer the offense than what DHB does.

The situation behind Ben just might be the most interesting situation on the roster, as both Bruce Gradkowski and Michael Vick are both UFA’s, leaving Landry Jones as the lone backup under contract. The recently signed Dustin Vaughan has no real shot of making it through training camp. After using four quarterbacks this season, the Steelers may decide to go with three heading into next season. It is highly doubtful that Vick will return next year, but it would be logical to bring back Gradkowski. It would also make sense for the Steelers to go out and bring in a guy like Chase Daniel to compete with Jones to be the third quarterback. While Jones did some good things this season, he didn’t do nearly enough to have unwavering confidence in him to be the guy behind Ben.

With the Steelers being viewed as one of three teams with the best shot at representing the AFC in next year’s Super Bowl, and having more cap space than at anytime in recent memory, the front office needs to take advantage of this window of opportunity. That means, they should address the secondary early in the draft, if not through free agency. If there is a year that they abandon their best player available philosophy with their first pick, this is it. They also need to come up with a legitimate nose tackle who can apply pressure as well as stuff the run. If the 2016 Steelers can field a defense to compliment their explosive offense, then, around this time next year, Pittsburgh will be planning for their seventh Super Bowl parade.

 

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