The Pittsburgh Steelers have already lost two young starters this off-season in Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis. The Steelers have also lost veterans James Harrison, Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Colon and are not expected to bring back Max Starks and Casey Hampton. In the past it’s been uncommon for the Steelers to lose young talent. Instead they have typically locked up their young players and let older veterans go to make up the difference in cap space.
However, a lack of cap space and less experienced young players have caused the Steelers to lose two young starters this off-season. That same formula could cost the Steelers even more young stars to free agency a year from now.
Next off-season Emmanuel Sanders, Steve McLendon, Ziggy Hood, Jonathan Dwyer and Jason Worilds are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Sanders and McLendon could still leave this off-season as well if they get an offer on the open market as restricted free agents. The Steelers would be able to match those offers, but with their cap space being very limited they may not have room to do so.
A lack of cap space may also keep the Steelers from being able to sign any of these players to long-term deals. Pittsburgh may also be hesitant to sign any of the five to long-term deals because only Hood has been a full-time starter at any point during his career.
Sanders was the third receiver on the depth chart a year ago behind Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace. The 2012 season was his best season to date and he was supposed to see more playing time in Wallace’s absence, but rumors are that the Patriots may steal him from the Steelers in free agency.
McLendon was Casey Hampton’s back-up in 2012 and was ranked as ProFootballFocus’ top nose tackle for the 2012 season. I have argued that McLendon should have seen more playing time in 2012, but with Hampton expected to leave in free agency McLendon is expected to take over as the starter in 2013. However, like Sanders, McLendon could get an offer in restricted free agency.
Dwyer was also a restricted free agent, but he chose to sign his tender instead of testing the free agent market. Dwyer is also already in Miami for training and is hoping to be the Steelers feature back during the 2013 season. In 2012 Dwyer started at times for the Steelers and played well when the line in front of him was not banged up, but with offensive lineman going down almost every week that wasn’t very often.
As for Worilds the 2012 season was his best season so far in the NFL. Worilds saw playing time at right and left outside linebacker as he filled in for James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley who each missed time due to injuries. With Harrison now gone its next man up and that is expected to be Worilds.
So for the sake of this article we will assume that Sanders and McLendon will be back with the Steelers in 2013. Now lets assume that due to lack of cap room the Steelers will be unable to sign any of these five players to long-term deals this off-season. That would mean that each of these players would become unrestricted free agents next off-season. Right now that may not seem like a huge deal as none of the five are huge pieces of the Steelers offense or defense, but that could change.
Dwyer may win the starting running back job. Sanders could be the Steelers number two receiver behind Brown. McLendon is expected to start at nose tackle with Hampton leaving as a free agent this off-season. Hood will continue to start at defensive end and Worilds, as of now, is expected to start in place of Harrison at outside linebacker.
If the Steelers young offensive line can stay healthy and produce Dwyer could have a big season for the Steelers in the running game. In his two starts with a consistent and fairly healthy line Dwyer averaged over six yards per carry. If he can produce anywhere over four and a half yards per carry in 2013 the Steelers run game will improve dramatically.
Sanders could also see a large increase in stats and playing time if he becomes the Steelers number two receiver. McLendon should also see an increase in playing time and could drastically increase his value if he can hold down the nose tackle position for an entire sixteen game season. Hood should also have a much better season in 2013 if Woodley can stay healthy. Having a pass rusher like Woodley playing next to him should give Hood more opportunities to make plays.
Worilds, like Dwyer, could also become a big performer as he looks to step into a starting role. During the 2012 season Worilds showed strong pass rushing abilities from the left side and his stats and skills should only improve with more playing time. If he plays at a high level he could become a very attractive free agent with more teams moving to the 3-4 defense and many teams looking for outside pass rushers.
Now we will assume that these five players will see more playing time in 2013 and that they all produce at a good to high level.
If that happens the Steelers would struggle mightily to keep them all around. Many teams will be looking at Worilds and McLendon if they play well because outside linebacker and nose tackle are arguably the most important spots in the 3-4 defense. Feature running backs are also rare and a big season by Dwyer could get him a nice payday next off-season. Hood and Sanders can also increase their value by playing at a high level as starters in 2012.
If fans think it’s been hard to watch Wallace and Lewis leave Pittsburgh next off-season could be even worse. It of course will all depend on how these players perform next season, but if they play well they might price their way of the Steelers roster. Not to mention that Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark will be free agents in 2014 and to keep these young players around the Steelers would have to cut large salaries from their salary cap. Those cuts could be Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor depending on how each player performs in 2013.