In the Pittsburgh Steelers' efforts to go from good to great, the franchise must win the offseason -- not with overzealous free-agent plays, but with wise decision-making and prudent spending.
The Steelers will use the draft and free agency to supplement an already talented roster that needs upgrades at a few spots, starting with the secondary.
The offseason kicks off in earnest Feb. 8, the day after the Super Bowl. That gives Pittsburgh six months to figure things out.
To save you some time, here’s a step-by-step look at that process.
No franchise tags: Feb. 22 is the first day teams are permitted to use a franchise or transition tag on a player. The Steelers don’t have any candidates here. Carry on.
Free-agency plans loosely set around NFL combine: The team will formulate this plan soon, probably before the team gets to Indianapolis for the combine around Feb. 22. Most teams meet with the agents of their in-house free-agent players in this setting. Throughout these talks, the Steelers will prioritized their 19 free agents while simultaneously targeting players on the open market who fit their identity.
Early-March moves: The three-day window to negotiate with unrestricted free agents begins March 12. Contracts can be finalized starting 4 p.m. ET on March 15. As a build-through-the-draft team, the Steelers typically don’t spend a whole lot in the first week. But they know how close they are to a Super Bowl after back-to-back playoff appearances. If they see a piece they like, don’t be surprised by an aggressive move or two early.
Clarity on secondary: The Steelers could make a play on at least one free-agent safety or corner (Eric Weddle, anyone?) while parting from at least two of their own free-agent defensive backs -- Will Allen, Robert Golden, William Gay, Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake. Don’t be surprised if Boykin returns under the right deal. Boykin had a good experience in Pittsburgh despite minimal playing time through the season’s first 12 games. The list of good free-agent corners is lengthy. Kansas City’s Sean Smith is long and rangy. He would satisfy the upgrade Pittsburgh needs on the outside. And, hey, Adam Jones will be available.
Hard decisions loom on contracts: The Steelers still owe $4 million to Heath Miller, who’s one of the team’s most reliable players. But at 33, he has lost a step in the passing game. It's difficult to see the Steelers cutting him, though. The team can save $5.5 million by designating corner Cortez Allen as a post-June 1 cut. He enters the third year of a five-year, $24-million deal, but he struggled in Year 1 of that deal and missed all but one game in 2015. He still has cover ability when healthy, but at what price? The Steelers will likely sort out this matter internally in late February or early March. The Steelers have two good kickers in Chris Boswell and Shaun Suisham, who is due $2.4 million next season. The Steelers would be smart to carry both into camp, see what they have and then maneuver.
Contract restructuring: The Steelers restructured several contracts last season, including Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Mitchell and Marcus Gilbert in March. For salary cap purposes, expect the Steelers to reconfigure a few. Perhaps the Steelers find a way to move some of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's $100 million into different spots over the next four years, assuming it's friendly to the player.
On the draft trail: Coach Mike Tomlin loves the draft process -- working out players, talking with coaches, getting to know prospects on a personal level. Expect Tomlin to be an active participant in the high-profile (and some low-profile) pro days. The staff and personnel department will disperse on a mission to comb for talent, as usual. The Steelers are considered one of the best teams in the NFL at this.
Offseason workouts, bargain-bin shopping: Every year, good veteran players are still available in the late spring or early summer, ready to produce under a reasonable one- or two-year deal. Last year, the Steelers happened to sign DeAngelo Williams in March, but the concept is the same -- low cost (two years, $4 million), high impact. If the Steelers feel they have a need based on what they’ve seen in offseason workouts (starting April 18), they’ll summon reinforcements.
David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell among players with potential extensions around training camp: This is the most important category here. The Steelers like signing their ascending young players to contracts before they hit their final year of a rookie deal. They did this with Cam Heyward last season, and DeCastro, fresh off an All-Pro year, appears next in line. Bell’s situation is murkier because of his MCL tear, but team president Art Rooney said the team has seen enough from Bell. He doesn’t have to prove he’s healthy before extension talks. The decision with Bell will be philosophical -- how much are the Steelers willing to pay a running back in today’s game, even one as versatile as Bell?
Antonio Brown's contract will loom large: Brown has two years left on one of the best bargain contracts in the league ($43 million over six years). The Steelers have a long-standing policy to close re-negotiations until a player enters the final year of his current deal. But Brown's presence could change that. He’ll want to change that after his 136-catch season. Let’s just say agent Drew Rosenhaus will be ready and available to talk all offseason. When Brown and the Steelers agreed to move $2 million of his 2016 salary into 2015, which appeared a way to appease Brown, it wasn't just about that $2 million. Brown's trying to set himself up for 2016, too.