AFC North: Heath Miller

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers report to training camp in three days and it looks like coach Mike Tomlin has pre-ordered heat and humidity, two of his favorite ingredients for the practices that will take place at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Here is a different kind of primer for camp, and it is the first of two posts recapping the Steelers' offseason in the words of the coaches and the players.

Here is what the players said during the offseason practices.

Polamalu
“We could put Usain Bolt and the whole track team out there but that doesn't make us a good football team. So, we'll see how everything works out.” – strong safety Troy Polamalu on what an infusion of speed will mean for the defense

“I’m excited about this team and the direction we’re headed. I think that we have a lot of speed. That’s running the ball, that’s throwing the ball, whatever. I want us to be fast and to put a lot of points on the board. I feel younger than ever." – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on expectations for the offense after the Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games last season

“You see guys finishing to the end zone, the whole defense running to the ball, everyone coaching each other. I think we’re just a hungry young group that’s aspiring to win games. When you’ve got a young motivated group that everyone bought into what we’re trying to do it just speaks highly when you see it on the practice field.” – Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown on the urgency the Steelers showed during offseason practices

“I’m in his head every day, always asking questions, always trying to figure out the best way to do it. He’s always on my butt about just grinding. Not saying that I don’t push myself, but there’s always a next level and that’s what he’s brought to our whole unit.” – outside linebacker Jarvis Jones on new defensive assistant Joey Porter

Miller
“I expect to be better than last year for sure. That’s better because I should be able to put more preparation in, should be able to work like I’m used to working. Last year was about trying to find a new normal for myself and I’m a creature of habit so that wasn’t easy for me.” – tight end Heath Miller on participating in offseason practices after missing them the previous year while recovering from a torn ACL

“You’ve got a few guys and there time is right now. Cortez Allen is one of those guys. Will Gay is still one of those guys regardless of what people don’t want to say about him. The man’s real solid.I think last year was the best year of his career. And Cortez Allen toward the end was breaking out to what we all thought he could be -- a ball hawk.” – veteran Ike Taylor on the Steelers’ cornerbacks

“It’s nothing right now and I say that in the sense that that’s been talked about the last few years. The talent is there but if we come out here and [falter] we’ll be saying the same thing next year. You can’t just say because we have the high-round talent or guys that have experience that it’s supposed to be special. We’ve got to make it that way.” – left guard Ramon Foster on the whether offensive line’s strong finish in 2013 will translate into a big season for the unit this year

“He’s one of my better friends on the team now. It’s crazy the relationship I built with him over the last couple of months. He’s a lot like I am, outgoing, more jokes. Dri is the same way. It’s crazy how we all mesh together and get along.” – starting running back Le'Veon Bell on new backfield additions LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer


“Think about it. You’ve got a Hall of Famer in waiting and I’m coming in to play right after him. That’s pressure. Everybody knows what Casey was. He’s on a top five defense his whole career. I’ve seen the man play. There’s nothing else like him. I’m far from Casey. I’m never going to try to be Casey. The only thing I can do is work every day, do my best and just be the best Steve that I can be.” – nose tackle Steve McLendon on replacing five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton last season

Mitchell
“I don’t really care about Pro Bowl. I want to be All-Pro. I have to do what I did last year again plus get better. A lot of times last year people were talking about the front seven I played with and they were very talented but this defense here is very talented. Sometimes you’re overlooked but that’s just another chip to put on my shoulder and play football.” – new free safety Mike Mitchell on his goal for this season

“He’s like a sponge right now. The coaches tell him, ‘Don’t say much at all. Just try and soak everything up right now.’ It’s going to be tough on him but he’s the type of athletic he can do it. He’s willing and able to do whatever it takes.” – inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons on first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier

“I feel like I was overlooked by a lot of teams. A lot of guys that went ahead of me aren’t even on teams right now so that gives me a chip on my shoulder every day. When I get to the point where I’m that No. 1 guy and I’m an All-Pro cornerback I’m going to think back to the days when I was sad because I didn’t get drafted.” – cornerback Antwon Blake on what drives him

“I’ve gotten a chance to see who wore this number before me and the person who wore the number before me was a great player for the Steelers. With that comes a great opportunity to become the best and that’s somebody I want to become as great as or greater than. I love pressure. I thrive off that.” – rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt on wearing No. 91, Aaron Smith’s old number

“Ben is strong-armed with a sense of boldness. He’s going to throw some balls that maybe some other guys wouldn’t, even guys with strong arms. I love that as a receiver.” – new wide receiver Lance Moore on playing with Roethlisberger

“He’s like Paul Bunyan. He’s huge. He’s thick but he’s definitely agile. I think we can get a lot out of him. His potential is out of the roof. It’s about getting him to the next level.” – defensive end Cameron Heyward on rookie defensive tackle Dan McCullers
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers start another round of organized team activities today.

That means three more full-squad practices this week.

And a leap of faith.

The Dallas Cowboys lost arguably their best defensive player for the 2014 season last week when linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL. The grim reality that OTAs are fraught with as much risk as they are reward was reinforced by another in a string of unfortunate injuries for Lee.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsMike Tomlin has advised his players to play hard but smart and to stay off the ground during OTAs.
Not coincidentally coach Mike Tomlin addressed the specter of injury before the Steelers' second OTA last Wednesday, a day after Lee got hurt.

"He told us we don't have pads on so we don't need to be on the ground, we don't need to be bull rushing each other and stuff like that," outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "Use your hands, run to the ball and keep it clean."

The Steelers could have suffered something similar to the deflating loss the Cowboys are dealing with during their first voluntary practice a week ago.

Center Maurkice Pouncey, practicing for the first time since tearing his ACL last September, locked onto rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier during a running play. Pouncey drove Shazier back before the Steelers' first-round draft pick threw off the block and sent Pouncey sprawling to the grass.

Pouncey bounced up immediately and told Shazier, in so many words, to chill. But that play could have turned into another cautionary tale about OTAs had Pouncey reinjured his rebuilt right knee or accidentally taken out a teammate when he fell to the ground.

"Sometimes when guys get pulled to the ground or fall to the ground other guys around you are going to trip over you," veteran tight end Heath Miller said. "You want to try and control what you can control but at the same time there's certain things that are out of your hands."

The collective bargaining agreement that went into effect in 2011 minimized the risk of OTAs by limiting the number of voluntary practices that teams are allowed to stage. Teams are only permitted 10 OTAs as well as one mandatory minicamp, though they are still allowed extra practices if they have a new head coach.

OTAs serve a purpose even if injuries sustained during the practices are magnified and seemingly senseless. They give the players a chance to practice together during the offseason and are particularly helpful to free-agent signees and rookies who are learning a new system.

And, to be fair, players can get injured working out on their own. They can also just as easily blow out a knee in a non-contact situation as they can while locked up with another player or getting tangled up in a pile of bodies.

Tomlin, as other coaches around the NFL do, regularly emphasizes the importance of playing hard but also smart during OTAs. He also reinforces an important message when it comes to the voluntary practices.

"You can't make the team right now is what he says, which is true," left guard Ramon Foster said. "He gives us rules. There will be no fighting out here, no jersey pulling. Protect our guys. We try to keep the guys off the ground."

Players are inevitably going to hit the ground given how fast the game is even with the participants only wearing a helmet, jersey and shorts and not engaging in contact drills.

That is why there is an element of luck when it comes to OTAs as well as a leap of faith by everyone involved in them.

"You start thinking about (getting hurt) and you start playing slow and you can't be yourself, you can't make plays," Jones said. "You start playing slow and now you're getting in other people's way and that could create injuries. If it happens, it happens, you've just got to deal with it. Hopefully all of us can stay healthy throughout these practices."
PITTSBURGH -- Heath Miller is many things.

Keisel
Keisel
Revealing during an interview is not one of them.

But the Steelers tight end may have provided a hint on Brett Keisel’s future Thursday after Miller talked about what it’s like to be one of the longest-tenured players on the team.

Miller was reflecting on when he was one of the younger players on the Steelers and looked up to veterans such as linebacker James Farrior and defensive end Aaron Smith, who each played long after their 30th birthday.

Then he said, “Keisel’s not here right now and he was well into his 30s last year.”

"Not here right now" implies that Keisel will be back with the Steelers at some point.

I could be reading too much into Miller’s comment, but it dovetails with the sense it makes for the Steelers to bring back Keisel for another season.

First and foremost, there is no clear-cut starter at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward.

Cam Thomas has been working with the first team during OTAs, but the Steelers signed the former San Diego Charger to serve as a swing man who plays both defensive end and nose tackle.

Rookie Stephon Tuitt should figure into the mix at right defensive end but it may not be realistic to expect the second-round draft pick to develop quickly enough to start next season.

And who better to mentor Tuitt than Keisel, who also could play in some sort of rotation at right defensive end.

The timing for re-signing Keisel is right as the Steelers will receive more than $8 million in salary-cap room on Tuesday from releasing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley in March.

Stay tuned on this front.

Also from the Steelers’ third OTA session:
  • Strong safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and running back Dri Archer were among those not in attendance on Thursday. Center Maurkice Pouncey did not practice but that probably resulted from the Steelers not wanting the Pro Bowler to push himself too much in his return from a torn ACL.
  • Antonio Brown said he is willing to return punts this season but it sounds like a duty the Pro Bowl wide receiver wouldn’t mind passing off to one of his teammates. The Steelers have had a handful of players fielding punts during OTAs, including Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant. When asked if that means he will be replaced in that role, Brown smiled. “They say that every year and I’m back there, so we’ll see,” the fourth-year veteran said. “I’ll let Coach [Mike Tomlin] decide.”
  • Miller, who is going into his 10th NFL season, said he has not put a timetable on how much longer he wants to continue playing. The Steelers signed Miller to a three-year contract in March. “I just want to play as long as my body will allow me to,” he said, “so we’ll see where that takes me.”
PITTSBURGH – As understated as he is perhaps underrated, Heath Miller is as likely to make a bold prediction as he is to dance in the end zone after scoring a touchdown.

The Steelers tight end did say something interesting on why he expects to play better in 2014 than he did last season -- when Miller was less than a year removed from tearing his ACL.

[+] EnlargeHeath Miller
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicAfter recovering from a knee injury during 2013, Heath Miller is working hard this offseason to help power Pittsburgh's offense.
“I should be able to put more preparation in, should be able to work like I’m used to working,” Miller said Thursday following the Steelers’ final OTA of the week. “Last year was about trying to find a new normal for myself and I’m a creature of habit, so that wasn’t easy for me. I’m fully confident by the time the season rolls around I’m going to be feeling much better than the start of last year just from a confidence perspective.”

Such talk, while hardly bravado, should add to the optimism about an offense that came into its own in the second half of last season. The Steelers averaged more than 28 points in their final nine games, and they did so with Miller contributing in all phases of the offense but not playing as big a role in the passing attack as he had in previous seasons.

That is anything but a knock on the ninth-year veteran.

Miller, after all, missed just two games in 2013 and returned to the playing field roughly nine months after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery.

He caught 58 passes for 593 yards and a touchdown, but Miller wasn’t the same player who established career highs in receiving yards (816) and touchdown catches (eight) the previous season.

Miller attributed that to the recovery from the knee injury limiting his preparation leading up to games.

“I was constantly trying to find the right balance of how much to work, how much to take off, what type of rehab is good, what type of rehab is too much,” said Miller, whose teammates voted him Steelers MVP in 2012.

Such trial and error is largely behind Miller, who practiced all three days this week after watching OTAs last year because he had just started to run again.

Miller may have a new normal but the Steelers would love nothing more than if one of the most consistent players and personalities on their team can return to his old self.

Miller had arguably been the best all-around tight end in the NFL before getting hurt.

The 6-foot-5, 256-pounder should approach that level again since he is able to take part in offseason practices and in training camp in preparation for the 2014 season.

“I expect to be better than last year,” Miller said.

The Steelers would gladly take that.
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger confirmed two things Tuesday during an appearance on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh.

Cotchery
Roethlisberger
One, the Steelers weren’t expecting to lose wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery to free agency. Two, the Steelers will miss Cotchery, and not just because the seasoned veteran caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes in 2013.

“J Co, along with Heath Miller, was one of the best teammates that I’ve ever played with in any sport,” Roethlisberger said. “I didn’t see us losing him so it made it a little tougher when you’re not expecting someone to go. But he has to do what was best for his family just like everyone else that we’ve lost.”

Cotchery appeared as likely as any of the unrestricted free agents to re-sign with the Steelers after he thrived as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver in 2013.

But the Carolina Panthers offered him a two-year, $5 million contract after their wide receivers corps got raided, and that proved to be more than what the Steelers were willing to pay to keep Cotchery in Pittsburgh.

Shortly after Cotchery joined the Panthers, the Steelers signed former Saints wide receiver Lance Moore to a two-year, $3 million contract.

The Steelers are expected to draft a wide receiver later this week, perhaps as early as the first round.

General manager Kevin Colbert said earlier this week that the Steelers are pleased with what they have been able to accomplish in free agency despite some of the players they have lost.

“We went into the offseason with a specific plan in mind,” Colbert said, “and I think to a large degree that plan unfolded as we expected it to and we were happy with the way it did.”
PITTSBURGH -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay will critique draft picks that are made in less than a week. The ESPN analysts took their own respective turns in the hot seat Thursday night on ESPN2.

Ebron
The two engaged in a head-to-head, three-round mock draft with Kiper picking for teams with even-numbered draft picks and McShay picking for those with odd-numbered picks. Their selections were followed by analysis from former NFL general manager Bill Polian and former NFL director of pro personnel Louis Riddick.

And Polian didn't opt for subtlety after McShay picked North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron for the Steelers at No. 15 overall.

"He's a Pittsburgh Steeler and he doesn't block. That doesn't compute," Polian, a six-time NFL Executive of the Year, said of Ebron. "I don't think he's ready to play in the NFL right now. I think he's too immature. I don't think his feet are firmly planted on the ground. Yeah, he has ability but that only gets you so far."

Ebron may be one of the more polarizing players in the draft.

The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is the best tight end in the draft and an undeniable talent. Ebron, who caught 62 passes for 973 yards in his final season at North Carolina, has the size and athleticism to create mismatches.

And he is part of the new wave of tight ends who have become such a commodity because of their ability to put stress on opposing defenses.

Ebron would give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a tall target, and he would add a pass-catcher to a group that doesn't have a reliable one after veteran Heath Miller.

But as a blocker he can most diplomatically be described as a work in progress.

Or, as McShay said recently, “He’s a buffet blocker if you will. He kind of picks and chooses when he wants to get interested. But what he does well it’s just hard to find guys that can do it at the level that he does as far as stretching the field vertically and creating after the catch.”

Ebron may be too much of a gamble for the Steelers to pick at No. 15, especially since they have more pressing needs. McShay picked him for the Steelers with Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard off the board though with every other cornerback still available.

Riddick said he would have taken a cornerback for the Steelers, and he is especially high on Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller. Polian added of Ebron, "I would not risk this guy in a Pittsburgh offense that requires you to block."

As for the Steelers' other two picks, Kiper took LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry for them in the second round (No. 46 overall). McShay picked Clemson cornerback Bashaud Breeland for the Steelers in the third round (No. 97 overall).
PITTSBURGH -- Mock drafts have, predictably, been all over the place as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers' first-round pick. Most, however, have them taking a wide receiver or a cornerback No. 15 overall, assuming they don’t try to trade down.

I think those two positions are most likely the ones the Steelers will target with their first pick, though North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron could also be in play if he slides a little in the draft.

Ebron
Ebron is the No. 1 player at one of the few positions that is not particularly deep, and he would give the Steelers a tall receiver while also filling a long-term need. I think Heath Miller has at least three good seasons left in him, but the Steelers have to plan for the post-Miller years at some point.

If Ebron is still available when they make the first pick, I think they give him serious consideration, especially if a couple of cornerbacks are already off the board, as well as Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans.

The Steelers have eight other picks in the draft, three of which are compensatory selections, including one at the end of the third round. They have a lot of needs -- or as general manager Kevin Colbert would frame it "wants" -- particularly on defense.

Here is my projection of the positions they will address with their nine picks, which is contingent on the Steelers not adding extra ones through a trade.

Cornerback (2): The Steelers could use immediate help here, and they don't have a long-term starter at cornerback after third-year man Cortez Allen. I would be surprised if they don't draft two cornerbacks, with one of them coming in the first three rounds. They drafted two cornerbacks in 2011, including Allen in the fourth round.

Defensive line (2): The Steelers will draft a defensive lineman as early as the second round -- ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has them taking Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III with their second pick in his latest mock draft -- and they need to take at least one end. The signing of Cam Thomas gives them a player with position flexibility, but the Steelers' need at defensive end is every bit as glaring as it is at cornerback.

Wide receiver (1): No position is deeper in the draft, and even if the Steelers don't address it in the first round, they can still get a good prospect later. The Steelers probably won't get a chance to draft Evans unless they trade up in the first round and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin may be too much of a risk to take at No. 15. LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. has been linked to the Steelers in various mock drafts, and they could pull the trigger on him if they have him high on their board.

Linebacker (1): The Steelers have to take a player who projects as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme given how thin they are at the position. It will be interesting to see what they will do if Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is still on the board at No. 15. Mosley, who projects as an inside linebacker, may be one of the most NFL-ready players in the draft. “He and (Lawrence) Timmons could be your (NaVorro) Bowman and (Patrick) Willis,” ESPN analyst and former NFL scout Matt Williamson said. If the Steelers take Mosley, they will also draft an outside linebacker later in the draft.

Safety (1): The Steelers have hosted at least three safeties for pre-draft visits, including Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, a projected first-round pick. The signing of Mike Mitchell makes it unlikely the Steelers take a safety in the first round but it wouldn't hurt to add another younger player here. The question is whether it makes sense for them to draft a safety -- or instead sign a couple of undrafted free agents -- if they don’t take one in the second or third round.

Offensive line (1): I don't see this as the need that others do. The Steelers got their upgrade up front when they hired Mike Munchak to coach the offensive line and he has plenty of material with which to work. All five starters return, including Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who tore his ACL eight snaps into last season. And the Steelers have depth up front after re-signing Cody Wallace and Guy Whimper. The Steelers will probably take a lineman they can develop later in the draft, but I could also see them not drafting one for the second year in a row if they take two linebackers or a tight end.

Running back (1): The Steelers need depth and they could use a speedster to complement Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. The de-valuing of running backs allows the Steelers to wait until later in the draft to address the position and still get a good prospect. I don't see them taking a running back before the fifth round.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers won six of their final eight games last season in large part because the offense thrived with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger running a no-huddle attack.

The Steelers only lose one starter from that group – they didn’t show much interest in re-signing wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders – and they effectively add a Pro Bowler to the mix assuming center Maurkice Pouncey returns from the torn ACL he sustained in the 2013 season opener.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesWith Ben Roethlisberger leading a no-huddle attack, the Steelers' offense sizzled during the second half of the 2013 season.
The offense appears poised to drive a team that is retooling its defense, and a strong finish in 2013 bodes well for it carrying the Steelers back to the playoffs.

Then there is Mike Tomlin on the assumption that the offense will pick up where it left off last season when the Steelers averaged 28.2 points in their final nine games.

“I think that if that’s your mentality, you set yourself up for failure,” the seventh-year coach said at the NFL owners meetings. “I think that each year stands on its own. We have some quality guys that grew together in the latter parts of 2013, but I am not going to assume that means in anything in regards to 2014. I just think that’s the appropriate mentality to take.”

Indeed, as well as the offense played in the second half of last season it hasn’t been immune to change.

Along with Sanders the Steelers lost wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, and the two combined to catch 16 of Roethlisberger’s 28 touchdown passes last season.

Will Lance Moore provide Roethlisberger with a reliable, productive No. 3 wide receiver as Cotchery did last season? Is Markus Wheaton, who has all of six career receptions, ready to take over for Sanders and start?

There are other questions, such as whether running back Le’Veon Bell will build on a stellar rookie season, and injuries are always an X factor. The Steelers’ offensive line has been consistently scrambled by injuries and there is no way to foretell how they will impact that unit in 2014.

That is not to say there isn’t a lot to like about the Steelers’ offense.

Roethlisberger always gives the Steelers a chance to win and he played every snap last season. Tight end Heath Miller will be better almost two years removed from reconstructive knee surgery. And new offensive line coach Mike Munchak could prove to be the Steelers’ most significant offseason addition given his body of work and the respect he will command from his new players.

So was Tomlin just trying to downplay expectations for the offense or just simply being a downer when he refused to buy into any hype surrounding the unit?

Not necessarily.

What looks good on paper does not always translate to success on the field, and Tomlin is nothing if not a realist.

“What we were able to do in terms of finding traction down the stretch was significant in 2013,” Tomlin said, “but I am not going to assume that it means anything in 2014, to be honest with you.”

Steelers re-sign Michael Palmer

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PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers added depth at tight end Friday when they re-signed Michael Palmer to a one-year contract.

Palmer, whom the Steelers signehttp://proxy.espn.go.com/blogadmin/pittsburgh-steelers/wp-admin/edit.php?page=statusPaged last August, played in every game last season and caught one pass for eight yards. He was a core special teams player in 2013, and the fourth-year veteran joins Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and David Paulson as the tight ends on the roster.

The Steelers lost tight end David Johnson last week when the fifth-year veteran signed a two-year contract with the Chargers.

Palmer is the fifth of the Steelers' free agents to re-sign with the team, joining center Cody Wallace, offensive tackle Guy Whimper, safety Will Allen and long snapper Greg Warren in that group.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers announced the re-signings of safety Will Allen and long snapper Greg Warren on Wednesday morning with each agreeing to one-year contracts.

Neither is the kind of move that elicits much more than a collective yawn from the Steelers’ fan base, but the signings are significant.

Allen provides depth in the secondary as well as competition for second-year man Shamarko Thomas for the position of safety in the Steelers’ sub-packages.

Allen thrived as the safety in the quarter package after re-signing with the Steelers last October. In the process the 10th-year vereran showed that he can still play after getting released by the Cowboys.

The key with Allen is that he is also a core special-teams player so even if Thomas wins the competition for safety in the Steelers’ sub-packages Allen can still contribute.

Warren will return for a 10th season and the best thing you can say about him is that you never hear his name. Nothing could be better for a long snapper whose anonymity is crucial to his job security.

The Steelers signed long snapper Bryce Davis to compete with Warren. But the latter has become so used to fending off challenges for his position that there is no reason to think he won’t be snapping for the Steelers in 2014.

Warren is one of just five players on the roster who were part of the Steelers’ Super Bowl-winning teams in 2005 and 2008.

The others are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and tight end Heath Miller.
The Steelers had been quiet the past couple of weeks.

Then they slapped the transition tag on outside linebacker Jason Worilds Monday afternoon, just ahead of the 4 p.m. deadline to tag players. There has been a steady stream of activity since then, starting with Worilds signing the one-year, $9.754 million contract that came with the transition tag.

In the past two days the Steelers have signed four players -- they had yet to announce the Will Allen signing as of early Thursday morning -- and released three, including veteran linebacker Larry Foote.

Forget the first week of free agency -- players are allowed to start signing with new teams Tuesday at 4 p.m. -- when the NFL is abuzz with visits and player movement. The busy time for the Steelers when it comes to turning over and shaping their roster is often the week leading up to the start of free agency, and this year is no exception.

The Steelers already have made a flurry of moves, and more are coming as they try to clear enough room under the salary cap -- it will be $133 million in 2014 -- to sign free agents as well as their draft picks.

They are off to a good start as they have retained strong safety Troy Polamalu and tight end Heath Miller as well as their top pending free agent (Worilds) without compromising the core of their team or their finances.

The Steelers, according to ESPN's Roster Management System, are a shade over $133 million in regard to the salary cap, though that total doesn’t include Allen’s new deal because Pittsburgh has yet to make that official.

Allen likely signed for the veteran’s minimum ($955,000), a figure that can be reduced to a cap hit of $570,000 plus his signing bonus if it is a one-year contract and the bonus does not exceed $65,000.

However the numbers are crunched, the Steelers are almost in compliance with the 2014 salary cap, and they have gotten to that point without having to make any really tough cuts. More difficult decisions loom as they clear room under the 2014 cap, but so far, so good for the Steelers.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay will be unveiling his third mock draft later today.

Here are links to a couple of more mock drafts. Both Pete Prisco of CBS Sports and Doug Farrar of SI.com have the Steelers addressing the secondary with their first-round pick in May.

General manager Kevin Colbert said recently rebuilding will never be acceptable to the Steelers.

The organization has provided more than lip service to that credo after a quiet couple of weeks.

The Steelers, who are trying to rebound from consecutive 8-8 seasons, have added and subtracted from their salary cap in the last two days. In the process they have kept their financial situation tenable while also keeping franchise cornerstones in Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller along with one of their best young defensive players in Jason Worilds.

ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported the Steelers saved $4.5 in salary cap money in 2014 with the three-year, $20 million contract that Polamalu signed.

Assuming they got a similar salary-cap return on the three-year contact that Miller also signed on Wednesday then those two deals essentially offset the one-year, $9.75 million contact that Worilds signed on Tuesday, a day after the Steelers slapped a transition tag on the fourth-year veteran.

If that is the case the Steelers are only around $5.5 million over the cap and they have until Tuesday to get in compliance with the 2014 spending ceiling.

That is a small figure, especially considering the Steelers can easily get under the cap with a couple of moves.

They will clear $6.25 million in cap room by releasing offensive Levi Brown, who got hurt before playing a down for the Steelers following an in-season trade. They can save $7 million by releasing Ike Taylor or getting the veteran cornerback to accept a significant paycut.

There are several other contracts that can be restructured, and more salary-cap savings can be generated by signing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a new contract.

The Steelers’ salary-cap situation is frequently portrayed as dire. But in the last two days they have kept their top free-agent from hitting the open market next week while also retaining two veterans who are still vital players for them.

They still have a salary cap situation that is more than manageable with time and flexibility to get under the 2014 spending limit.

Salary cap woes?

Not so much for the Steelers.
Here is the latest Steelers' mailbag. Questions I received but didn't answer top the list for next week's mailbag. I appreciate the great questions and, as always, keep them coming. And away we go ...

PITTSBURGH -- On the same day Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Steelers have told Ben Roethlisberger they plan to draft a tall wide receiver early, general manager Kevin Colbert offered this nugget in regard to the franchise quarterback.

“What we have to do is surround [Roethlisberger] with the best talent,” Colbert said on Wednesday, “and he has to play to that level that he’s capable of playing if we do get that talent around him.”

Colbert’s response was parsed and part of a larger answer to his acknowledgement that Big Ben isn’t getting any younger. But it signaled that the Steelers plan to go all-in with Roethlisberger, who turns 32 next month, and give him every chance of getting the organization back to the Super Bowl.

That, taken with what Dulac reported during an online chat, points to the Steelers providing Roethlisberger with the tall wide receiver he has long coveted – and hasn’t had since his rookie season in 2004.

Think about it.

The offense, unlike a defense in transition, is already largely in place for 2014.

Pro Bowler Antonio Brown returns after authoring the greatest season by a Steelers wide receiver. Le’Veon Bell has established himself as a feature back with plenty of upside after a robust rookie season. Tight end Heath Miller, solid in 2013, will be even better next season when he isn’t coming back from reconstructive knee surgery.

Colbert could have been referring to the offensive line when talking about the need to surround Roethlisberger with top talent. But the line returns intact after making significant improvement in the second half of last season, and it will get better under the watchful eye of new offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

Kelvin Beachum may not be a prototypical left tackle but he proved to be more than capable there after supplanting Mike Adams following the fourth game of the season. And the second-year man provided enough of a sample size for the Steelers to think he can hold his own protecting Roethlisberger’s blind side while also continuing to get better.

The obvious missing piece on offense is a rangy wide receiver, and the Steelers may not get a better chance to provide Roethlisberger with one while he is still in his prime.

The draft that Colbert said is as deep as any he has seen in 30 years is particularly flush with wide receivers. There are tall ones such as Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin -- each is listed as at least 6-foot-5 -- and there also appears to be a handful in the 6-2, 6-3 range who could be early-round selections.

Whether that means the Steelers draft a tall wide receiver in the first or second round remains to be seen. Colbert insists that the Steelers stick to their draft board and that talent always trumps need when they are making their picks.

The Steelers can’t know how things will shake out during the pre-draft evaluations that shift into another gear next week at the NFL combine.

Or how the actual draft in May plays out.

But if the Steelers are intent on taking advantage of every snap that Roethlisberger has left at wide receiver at No. 15 overall is very much in play despite the more pressing needs they have on defense.

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