AFC North: Lawrence Timmons

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau would probably take issue with where linebacker Lawrence Timmons ranks among the NFL’s top 100 defensive players, according to ESPN.com.

Timmons
Timmons, a player whom LeBeau has said should have made several Pro Bowls by now, is No. 77, falling 15 spots from his 2013 ESPN.com ranking.

It’s hard to imagine why Timmons dropped so much considering the season he had in 2013. The eighth-year veteran led the Steelers with 155 tackles, tied for the team lead with two interceptions and also recorded three sacks. Granted, it was a down year for the Steelers' defense, but Timmons excelled despite playing alongside a rookie (Vince Williams) who was feeling his way at weakside inside linebacker for much of the season.

Timmons is versatile and durable -- the former first-round pick has started 53 consecutive regular season games -- and he is the Steelers’ best player on defense.

In another ranking, a handful of Steelers showed up on ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando’s list of 50 players poised to break out Insider this season, including right guard David DeCastro (No. 3) and running back Le'Veon Bell (No. 9).

Here is what Sando wrote about DeCastro:
  • DeCastro was quite proficient as a run-blocker while playing 15 games last season after a knee injury wiped out his 2012 rookie campaign. He has a shot at ascending among the best guards in the league if he can stay on the field.

Here is Sando’s take on Bell:
  • Lots of people in the league believe the Steelers are primed for a big season, and Bell figures to play a prominent role in their success after a foot injury slowed him as a rookie in 2013. Look for the goal-line carries to go to LeGarrette Blount, however (consider that an alert to fantasy owners).

Also showing up on Sando’s list are defensive end Cameron Heyward (No. 26) and outside linebacker Jason Worilds (No. 27).
LATROBE, Pa. -- Cornerback Ike Taylor, coming off his most trying season since 2006, when he lost his starting job for five games, received a vote of confidence from Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

“From the middle of the (2013) season on if you looked at him, he’s really close and playing ball like Ike can,” LeBeau said. “He looks good in training camp.”

Taylor
Teams targeted Taylor frequently last season and the 6-2, 195-pounder had trouble shadowing premier wide receivers like the Lions’ Calvin Johnson and the Browns’ Josh Gordon.

Taylor turned 34 in May but LeBeau said advancing age did not cause a decline in Taylor’s play as much as other factors did.

“He was playing with some injuries last year, and true professional players do that and they don’t use it for a crutch,” LeBeau said. “You didn’t hear that from Ike but we needed him in there.”

A few odds and ends:
  • It will be interesting to see what this afternoon’s practice looks like after such a lackluster one on Wednesday. Coach Mike Tomlin clearly was not happy about the Steelers’ worst practice of camp, and the Steelers could do more tackling this afternoon than he had planned even though they play their first preseason game in just two days. Tomlin will hold a news conference at 11:45 a.m. ET, when he will likely provide more clarity on rookie inside Ryan Shazier, who has missed the last two practices because of a right knee injury. Tomlin has twice said that Shazier has a “boo boo” when asked about the first-round pick’s injury.
  • Veteran inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons has said it is a childhood dream of his to make the Pro Bowl and go to Hawaii for the annual all-star game. LeBeau said the recognition that comes with making Pro Bowl is long overdue for Timmons. “I’ve said he’s been playing at a Pro Bowl level for three years now, and a couple of those years we led the daggone league in defense and he should have gone,” LeBeau said. “That’s just my opinion.”
  • Fans are running out of opportunities to watch the Steelers practice. Today’s practice at St. Vincent College will be the final one of the week that is open to the public. The Steelers have four open practices next week starting Monday and ending Thursday. Their last two open practices at camp with be joint ones with the Buffalo Bills at St. Vincent College.
LATROBE, Pa. – Dick LeBeau has a high opinion of Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel. The longtime Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator is similarly impressed by a couple of rookies he sees on a regular basis.

LeBeau, in fact, couldn’t say enough good things on Wednesday about inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. LeBeau expects Shazier, a first-round pick in May, to start this season and for Tuitt, a second-round selection, to play a lot.

“I don’t want to overload their plate but I would say they’re ahead of schedule,” LeBeau said. “They’ve been very much a pleasure for the whole coaching staff mostly because of the type of people they are. They’re very open to coaching. They’re hard workers and they know they’ve got a lot to learn and that’s not always the case.”

LeBeau is enamored with the physical ability of both players as he tries return the Steelers’ defense to the NFL’s top tier after it finished 13th in total defense last season.

Grimes
Tuitt
Shazier, the 15th overall pick of he 2014 draft, runs like a defensive back. His athleticism also translates well to an NFL game is that is becoming more wide open. The 6-foot-5, 303-pound Tuitt has a unique blend of size and athleticism, and it is probably only a matter of time before he supplants Cam Thomas at left defensive end.

“Even though I knew he could run, when I see him in person I am surprised by his endurance and his speed and quickness,” LeBeau said of Tuitt. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy that big move like that. Now does that mean he’s going to be a great player? No, it doesn’t. There’s a lot of other things that come in there. But he seems willing to try to acquire that knowledge and those skills.”

Shazier has been the starter at weakside inside linebacker since the outset of offseason practices, and he has all but won the starting job because of the speed the Ohio State product and Lawrence Timmons can provide in the middle of the defense.

“I think those two guys are going to give us a lot of speed at a position that doesn’t necessarily feature speed. We’re going to be fast at inside ‘backer.”

Shazier and Tuitt will play in their first preseason game on Saturday night when the Steelers visit the New York Giants. To say LeBeau is excited to see how each player fares in the 7:30 ET game is an understatement.

“These young guys I don’t want to overload the expectations but at this stage they’re doing a good job,” LeBeau said. “I’m glad we’re going to start playing some games. It makes the evaluation process a little easier and perhaps identify some of the areas we need to focus on.”

Steelers Camp Report: Day 7

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
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LATROBE, Pa. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp:
  • The offense and defense battled to a draw in one of the most anticipated drills of training camp. The offense scored three touchdowns in six attempts from the 1-yard line in the goal-line drill. Ben Roethlisberger threw an easy touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth off play-action to start the drill. The play call didn’t sit well with the defense and might have contributed to cornerback Ike Taylor and LeGarrette Blount later jawing at each other from across the field. Tauren Poole and Josh Harris each scored on 1-yard runs, but the defense held its own, stopping three runs other short of the end zone. Inside linebacker Vince Williams blew up Poole short of the end zone, putting an exclamation on an impressive day. Williams had delivered a monster hit earlier in practice when he obliterated running back Miguel Maysonet in an 11-on-11 drill.
  • Rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant had his best practice of training camp. The fourth-round draft pick made a handful of difficult catches. None were more impressive than when Bryant twisted his body while on the run to catch a Bruce Gradkowski pass that had sailed behind the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Bryant in the end zone. “He’s a big, so we expect him to consistently make big-guy plays,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Bryant. "I’m interested in him developing a complete game.”
  • Tempers flared again a day after the first fight of training camp broke out and nearly turned into a brawl. Outside linebacker Chris Carter and left tackle Kelvin Beachum had to be separated at the end of one play during a red-zone drill. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and nose tackle Hebron Fangupo went at it during goal-line drills and punches were thrown before the two were separated.
  • Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey missed his second consecutive practice after sustaining a concussion last Thursday and linebacker Jordan Zumwalt remains out with groin tightness. Tomlin gave tight end Heath Miller and nose tackle Steve McLendon the day off in part so he could look at some of the younger players at those positions. Safety Mike Mitchell did some work, Tomlin said, and he might be close to returning. Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Steelers in March, has been on the physically unable to perform list since reporting to camp with a groin injury.
  • Rookie running back Dri Archer showcased his speed in one-on-one passing drills. Matched up several times against Lawrence Timmons, Archer made an over-the-shoulder catch after separating from Timmons on a wheel route. Earlier in the drill, Archer caught a pass in front of Timmons, stopped and then ran right past him.
  • The Steelers practice Sunday and Monday from 2:55 to 5:30 p.m. ET. The players are off on Tuesday and practice will resume on Wednesday.
LATROBE, Pa. -- When the Pittsburgh Steelers made Lawrence Timmons the first draft pick of the Mike Tomlin era, they liked the Florida State product in part because he had the versatility and speed to play inside or outside.

Timmons, after a slow start to his Steelers career, has established himself as one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL. And he probably should have realized by now his lifelong dream of going to Hawaii to play in the Pro Bowl.

Timmons has indeed been that good the last two seasons.

Timmons, who has started 53 consecutive regular-season games, has played outside linebacker during his career when injuries necessitated a move. But the eighth-year veteran doesn’t see that happening this season even though the Steelers have little proven depth at the position.

“I think we’ve got enough outside linebackers now to where I’m not needed there anymore,” said Timmons, who led the Steelers with 126 tackles last season. “I’m strictly inside.”

Timmons singled out Vic So'oto, who signed a futures contract with the Steelers last January, and rookie Howard Jones as two outside linebackers who have a chance to provide depth along with Arthur Moats and Chris Carter.

So’oto has NFL experience, having played in six games with three different teams. Jones is an intriguing prospect; the undrafted free agent entered Shepherd University, a Division II school in West Virginia, as a wide receiver and left as an outside linebacker -- and with the school’s record for career sacks (35).

Timmons’ belief that he will strictly play inside linebacker reinforces my belief that the Steelers won’t have any interest in bringing back James Harrison unless injuries change the outlook at outside linebacker.

Harrison would strictly provide depth, and the five-time Pro Bowler is not a special-teams player at this point of his career. The Steelers, meanwhile, will apparently try to build depth at outside linebacker through younger players who may also be able to help them on special teams.
PITTSBURGH -- He still uses his GPS to make his way around Pittsburgh, but rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier didn’t need nearly as much navigational assistance when he was on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice fields in late May and June.

Shazier started alongside Lawrence Timmons from the outset of offseason practices, and he looked anything but lost despite learning a new defense on the run.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Joe Sargent/Getty ImagesRookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was a star in minicamp, but will his progress continue when the pads come on?
“He understands concepts very well,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said of the Steelers’ first-round draft pick. “He reminds me a lot of Larry Foote in terms of football intelligence, and he’s a very sharp guy.”

Not that Shazier will be exempt from the requisite rookie growing pains. Or that Butler wouldn’t prefer the Steelers easing the former Ohio State All-American into the NFL.

That is not an option in large part because Shazier’s speed and playmaking ability are both badly needed on a defense that slipped appreciably last season. Shazier, the Steelers’ most significant addition during the offseason, made it look easy at times during offseason practices. He turned in a couple of breathtaking plays, including a leaping interception of a pass that backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski thought he could throw over Shazier in the middle of the field.

The caveat with how good Shazier has looked: the 6-1, 237-pounder has only practiced with the Steelers in shorts. That changes Monday, when the Steelers don the pads at training camp following two non-contact practices.

If Shazier makes the same kind of progress at camp as he did during offseason drills he will start Sept. 7 in the season opener against the visiting Browns.

Here are the four other significant additions that the Steelers made during the offseason.

Offensive line coach Mike Munchak. The Steelers have too often fielded suspect offensive lines under coach Mike Tomlin, though constant injuries up front haven’t helped. A line that came together in the second half of last season will start a pair of former first-round draft picks and two second-round selections. Nobody is more qualified to bring the group together then Munchak. There are no excuses this season -- unless mass injuries consistently scramble the line.

S Mike Mitchell. As with Shazier, the Steelers added speed and a playmaker when they signed Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract in March. They badly needed both elements on the back end of their defense, and Mitchell will be a significant upgrade over Ryan Clark at free safety. He has aspirations of becoming one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the Steelers would love to see Mitchell achieve that goal in Pittsburgh.

RB/WR Dri Archer. The Steelers added a bolt of lightning to their offense when they drafted the ultra-fast Archer in the third round. He will return kickoffs and could allow the Steelers to relieve Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown of his duties as the primary punt returner. Archer’s speed and versatility gives offensive coordinator Todd Haley the kind of player he can use to exploit mismatches. If Archer is Chris Rainey 2.0 the Steelers will be more than happy with the investment they have made in the former Kent State star.

OLB Arthur Moats. The former Buffalo Bill has starting experience and versatility and gives the Steelers a promising option should there be injuries or ineffective play at outside linebacker. Moats can also play inside, though the Steelers are pretty deep there, and he is expected to establish himself as a core special-teams player. The importance of depth in the NFL can't be overstated, and the Steelers improved themselves in that area with the signing of Moats.
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 -- Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier has impressed the Pittsburgh Steelers with his physical ability during offseason practices. The first-round pick drew praise from Ben Roethlisberger on Friday for what the Steelers quarterback said is an overlooked part of Shazier's game.

"He's going to be fun to watch," Roethlisberger said on WDVE 102.5 in Pittsburgh, "and the thing about him that is most underrated that people don't talk about is he's very smart on the field. I think he's going to be a guy that's going to be calling the defense pretty soon."

That assessment will only add to the growing hype surrounding Shazier, who turned in the play of offseason practices on Wednesday when he made a leaping interception of a pass that Bruce Gradkowski threw because he didn't think Shazier would get to it.

Shazier put his knowledge of the Steelers' playbook at a "five or six” on a scale of one to 10 earlier this week, and the 6-1, 237-pounder is only going to get better as his comfort level in the defense increases.

Shazier still has to show he can play well when the pads go on at St. Vince College in Latrobe, and the Ohio State product will have to work through the grind of training camp along with the rest of the rookies.

But at this point it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Shazier is not the starter alongside inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons when the Steelers open the season Sept. 7 against the visiting Browns.

"We've got some guys on defense that look special," Roethlisbeger said of the Steelers' rookie class.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers went into the NFL draft with Lawrence Timmons and a lot of question marks at inside linebacker.

Now it might be one of the deepest positions on the team.

If Ryan Shazier is as good as advertised -- and it says here that the former Ohio State star will be another first-round hit for the Steelers -- he and Timmons fill form one of the better inside linebacker tandems in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Steelers selected Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall pick in the first round.
Vince Williams, who started 11 games last season as a rookie, provides quality depth. Undrafted free agent Terence Garvin, who played 15 games last season before hurting his knee, also returns, and he shined on special teams in 2013 while also logging some snaps on passing downs.

The Steelers added more depth at inside linebacker on the third day of the draft when they picked UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt in the sixth round.

“Great competition at inside linebacker,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said, “we are going to have some.”

Sean Spence could also be part of the competition when the Steelers open training camp in late July.

Spence, who suffered a career-threatening knee injury in the Steelers' final preseason game in 2012, has made remarkable progress. The former third-round pick has been working with his teammates in the Steelers' offseason program after receiving medical clearance from the team doctors.

“He looks real good to me,” Butler said. “It's getting really close to being miraculous.”

Spence shredded his knee in his final preseason game as a rookie as he tore several ligaments and also suffered nerve damage. It is still too early to tell how much the Miami (Fla.) product will be able to contribute to the Steelers, especially since his game was predicated on speed.

But Spence will be a player to watch during the offseason practices, which start at the end of the month and conclude with a mandatory minicamp in the middle of June.

“We will see how the knee holds up when he starts hitting and things like that,” Butler said. “He is such an exceptional young man and you hope that it works out for him, and I think it will.”

If that happens it will be quite a bonus for the Steelers, who would further bolster themselves at inside linebacker if Spence is able to play again.

“In the coaching sessions that he's been able to take part in he looks great, he looks healthy,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “We hope to have him in the mix. We can never have enough good players at any one position.”
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 NFL draft is still more than five weeks away but the Steelers may turn their full attention to it since it looks like they are finished with free agency for now.

The signing of running back LeGarrette Blount to a two-year, $3.85 million contract on Friday puts the Steelers smack up against the spending ceiling and with the least amount of salary-cap space of any team.

They have not tried to restructure linebacker Lawrence Timmons' contract, and they could create millions of dollars in cap room by turning a significant portion of his $6.75 million base salary this year into a signing bonus.

There doesn't appear to be any other moves on the horizon that could create cap room such as a new contract for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or a multiyear deal for outside linebacker Jason Worilds.

The Steelers will most likely wait until after June 1 when they receive more than $8 million in cap savings from the release of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley before they sign more free agents, including some of their own.

If they have put free agency on hold the Steelers have to be more than pleased with what they've accomplished in the last three weeks.

They signed a starting safety in Mike Mitchell, who makes them younger and faster in the secondary. They added much-needed depth at running back as well as a starting-caliber player in Blount. And the Steelers compensated nicely for the loss of Jerricho Cotchery by signing Lance Moore to step in as their No. 3 wide receiver.

They have also addressed both of their lines and signed a linebacker in Arthur Moats, who has the flexibility to play inside and outside as well as on special teams.

The Steelers haven't been splashy during free agency but they have been effective -- at least on paper -- in filling holes.

And it would have been hard to foresee them making this many signings without compromising the foundation of their team a month ago when they still had work to do just to get in compliance with the salary cap.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers’ search for running back depth has them meeting with a seemingly unlikely candidate for help in that area.

Three-time Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew is visiting the Steelers today, per ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, and Pittsburgh is among the teams that are interested in the eight-year veteran.

Jones-Drew
Le'Veon Bell is entrenched as Pittsburgh’s featured back but the Steelers have no proven backups behind him. They were scheduled to meet with James Starks on Tuesday but Starks re-signed with Green Bay before visiting the Steelers.

That a player the caliber of Jones-Drew is willing to visit a team that doesn’t need a starter at his position may be a sign of how depressed the market is for running backs.

Jones-Drew has more than 8,000 career rushing yards and is just two seasons removed from a 1,600-yard campaign. Squat and powerfully built, the player who is aptly nicknamed “Pinball” has been a workhorse in Jacksonville, which makes it curious that he would return the Steelers’ interest in him.

Jones-Drew's base salary last season was $4.95 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Steelers are only $2.31 million under the salary cap, and they don’t have the flexibility to pay what Jones-Drew is likely seeking unless they restructure contracts or sign players to new long-term deals to lower their cap hit for 2014.

Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is an obvious candidate for a contract restructure.

His base salary is $6.75 million this year and the Steelers could turn a significant chunk of that into signing bonus and spread the money over the final three years of his contract to reduce his 2014 cap hit.

Free-agency review: Steelers

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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Mitchell
Most significant signing: The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t wait long to get younger and faster in the secondary as they lured Mike Mitchell away from the Carolina Panthers with a five-year, $25 million contract. Mitchell, who turns 27 in June, will replace Ryan Clark at free safety, and the Steelers are hoping they added a playmaker to a defense that intercepted 10 passes last season, tied for the third-fewest in the league. Mitchell, who picked off four passes in 2013, has the speed to cover ground in the secondary and is also a good blitzer. Did everything come together for him last season because he played on a defense that led the NFL with 60 sacks or was the jump he made a natural progression for a player with an impressive skill set? The Steelers are banking on the latter.

Most significant loss: Steelers fans grumbled about Emmanuel Sanders and his lack of consistency, but his signing with the Broncos cost them a starter and left them Kleenex thin at wide receiver. Second-year man Markus Wheaton is the most experienced wide receiver on the roster after Pro Bowler Antonio Brown but he played just 157 snaps last season. Jerricho Cotchery, who led the Steelers with 10 touchdown receptions last season, is no lock to return. The 10-year veteran is visiting Carolina and it could be a good fit for both sides. The Panthers needs wide receivers in the worst way and Cotchery badly wants the chance to play in a Super Bowl.

Biggest surprise: The Steelers probably anticipated losing Ziggy Hood but they couldn’t have predicted that Hood and Al Woods would sign with other teams so early in free agency. The losses of those defensive ends left the Steelers in need of sheet bodies at the position, and yet it didn’t seem like they were any more inclined to bring back 12-year veteran Brett Keisel for one more season. Maybe that changes if they don’t land Alex Carrington, who visited the Steelers last Friday but is also meeting with other teams before signing somewhere.

What’s next: The Steelers are less than $3 million under the salary cap, which means they have to free up more cash since the $8.58 million they saved this year by releasing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley doesn’t become available to them until after June 1. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons could be on deck as far as a contract restructure. His base salary in 2014 is $6.75 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the Steelers can lower his cap number ($11.82 million) by converting a big chunk of that into a signing bonus. The Steelers could also reduce Jason Worilds’ cap hit of $9.754 million by signing the outside linebacker to a long-term contract.

All-AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
10:00
AM ET
NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

 
The Steelers placed six players on ESPN.com’s All-AFC North team, including unanimous selections in wide receiver Antonio Brown and outside linebacker Jason Worilds. First, some background on how the team was selected. All four ESPN NFL Nation reporters who cover the respective teams in the AFC North on a daily basis voted on the squad, and we voted based on players’ specific positions in the case of the offensive line. That is why David DeCastro and Marshal Yanda are not the guards on the team. Both play right guard, and DeCastro got the nod over Yanda even though the latter has been voted to the Pro Bowl.

Wide receiver and inside linebacker were clearly the strength of the division. Brown, A.J. Green and Josh Gordon were all unanimous picks at wide receiver. All three are headed to the Pro Bowl and deservedly so. Lawrence Timmons had a Pro Bowl-caliber season, but he didn’t make the All-AFC North team because of the depth at inside linebacker. I voted for Timmons but can’t quibble with the selections of Daryl Smith and Vontaze Burfict. Each had outstanding seasons. Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham makes the team in most other divisions but had no chance against Justin Tucker. Cameron Heyward stated his case at defensive end with a breakout season. But he didn’t become a starter until the fifth game of the season, and Bengals defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap were the picks at the position.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell justified his pick at running back with a strong finish that included 214 of his 860 rushing yards in the Steelers’ final two games. He is one of the main reasons why the Steelers are so excited about their offense heading into the offseason. Ben Roethlisberger was the obvious choice at quarterback. The 10-year veteran played every snap and had one of the best statistical seasons of his career. Roethlisberger is almost a lock to be added to the Pro Bowl squad, assuming a couple of the quarterbacks voted to the team bow out because their team has made the Super Bowl or are nursing an injury.

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