Pittsburgh Steelers: Ziggy Hood

Position preview: Defensive end

July, 14, 2014
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Next in a series that looks at every position on offense and defense with training camp approaching, we take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive ends.

Returning starter: Cameron Heyward. The former first-round draft pick broke through in his third NFL season. Heyward, who took over at left defensive end in the fifth game of the season for Ziggy Hood, led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures. He also established himself as one of the young players that the Steelers will build around on defense.

New faces: Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, Josh Mauro and Ethan Hemer. Thomas, who started 10 games at nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers last season, signed a two-year, $4 million contract with the Steelers in March. The Steelers drafted Tuitt in the second round and added Mauro and Hemer as undrafted rookie free agents.

On the bubble: Brian Arnfelt. The undrafted free agent spent most of 2013 on the practice squad before receiving a late-season promotion. The Northwestern product played in two games and has a good chance of making the 53-man roster. Arnfelt, however, could become part of a numbers crunch if the Steelers bring back Brett Keisel for one more season.

By the numbers: Heyward played 800 snaps last season. Arnfelt was the only other defensive end on the roster to get any snaps for the Steelers last season, and he was in for just two plays.

Did you know: The only time Tuitt played at Heinz Field he didn’t finish the game because of an ejection. Tuitt was thrown out of Notre Dame’s 28-21 loss at Pitt last season after officials ruled he had targeted Carolina Panthers quarterback Tom Savage with an above-the-shoulder hit on the first play of the second quarter. The controversial call was later ruled a correct one by the ACC’s head of officiating.

Quotable: “Some fans in San Diego gave me that when I first had Twitter and I was playing around with them and they called me ‘Baby Zilla.’ I stuck with it ever since.” – the 6-foot=4, 330-pound Thomas on how he got his nickname.

Outlook: Heyward is one of the Steelers’ best defensive players, and he gives them a strong inside rusher when they go to their nickel defense. Thomas is more ideally suited to swing between defensive end and nose tackle, the role that Al Woods filled last season. He is a stopgap at defensive end until Tuitt is ready to start. Keisel also becomes a part of the rotation at the defensive end spot opposite Heyward if the Steelers re-sign the 12th-year veteran.

Steelers offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
5/23/14
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades


With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsSigning Mike Mitchell gives the Steelers another speedy playmaker in the secondary.
Best move: The Steelers wasted little time in getting younger and faster in the secondary as they landed former Panthers safety Mike Mitchell on the first day of free agency. Mitchell, who turns only 27 next month, blossomed last season in Carolina as he intercepted four passes and recorded 3.5 sacks. He gives the Steelers a playmaker to pair with Troy Polamalu on the back of their defense. And Mitchell was cost-effective for a team that had limited room under the salary cap. Only $5.25 million of the five-year $25 million deal that Mitchell signed is guaranteed, and the contract is backloaded to make it cap friendly.

Riskiest move: The Steelers shopped more than usual in free agency, but they added only one player to their defensive line while losing defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods. Cam Thomas, who signed a two-year, $4 million contract, would ideally fill Woods’ role as a swing man between nose tackle and defensive end. But right now he is the Steelers’ best option at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward. The Steelers need second-round pick Stephon Tuitt to develop quickly and at least play in a rotation at defensive end. They would also be wise to keep Brett Keisel’s number handy.

Most surprising move: The Steelers didn’t draft a cornerback until the fifth round, and that is a position where they have only one long-term starter in Cortez Allen. The prevailing thought prior to the draft was that the Steelers would take a cornerback early and select two of them. Shaquille Richardson, their fifth-round pick, and free-agent signee Brice McCain are the only addition they have made at cornerback. That means the Steelers better be right that the answers at cornerback are already in their building,

What’s next: The Steelers appear to be done adding -- for now -- and most of the $8 million they'll receive in salary cap savings after June from the release of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley will be used to sign draft picks. They have a handful of players going into the final year of their contracts that they should try to sign to long-term deals. The list includes center Maurkice Pouncey, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and Allen. The Steelers could also try to sign quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a new contract, though nothing is imminent on that front. The Steelers may wait until after the 2014 to sign Roethlisberger to a new deal since he still has two years left on his contract.
PITTSBURGH -- This is the next in a series that takes a post-free agency, post-draft look at all of the positions with the exception of quarterback.

Our fifth look is at a unit that is in transition.

Defensive line

Who is new: Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Thomas to a two-year, $4 million contract in March, and the former Charger, also known as "Baby Zilla," can play nose tackle and defensive end. The Steelers took Tuitt, a defensive end, in the second round of the draft. They used the second of their two sixth-round selections on McCullers, a 6-7, 352-pound defensive tackle.

Who is gone: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Al Woods. Keisel, who has started at defensive end for the Steelers since 2006, remains unsigned. Hood and Woods signed with the Jaguars and Titans, respectively, as unrestricted free agents.

Returning starters: Cameron Heyward and Steve McLendon. Heyward played sparingly his first two seasons in Pittsburgh but he showed in 2013 why the Steelers could no longer keep him off the field. Heyward supplanted Hood as a starter five games into last season, and the 2011 first-round pick led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures and tied for second on the team with five sacks. McLendon took over for five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton at nose tackle and probably received too much blame for the Steelers yielding 4.3 yards per carry last season. McLendon has received several votes of confidence from the Steelers this offseason, and he should be better in his second season as a starter. "I'm not worried about him at this time," defensive line coach John Mitchell said.

Most significant addition: Tuitt. The former Notre Dame star already has an NFL body and the 6-5, 303-pounder should play immediately given the Steelers' need at defensive end. The Steelers were elated that Tuitt lasted until their pick in the second round of the draft. They will be even happier if he develops quickly enough to start sooner rather than later opposite Heyward.

Most significant loss: Keisel. The unquestioned leader of the defensive line and a Steelers captain, Keisel finished third on the team with 26 quarterback pressures last season and also recorded four sacks despite missing four-plus games because of a nagging foot injury. The Steelers haven't shown any inclination to bringing Keisel back for a 13th season, which is curious considering how thin they are at defensive end.

On outside looking in: McCullers. The Tennessee product is probably a project more than a player who can provide immediate help up front. McCullers will have to prove to the Steelers he can play with the necessary pad level at nose tackle, and that will be a challenge given his sheer size.

Hidden number: McLendon had nine quarterback pressures last season -- only two less than outside linebacker Jarvis Jones -- despite playing only 338 snaps and coming off the field on passing downs.

Outlook: A defensive line that had been anchored for years by Keisel, Hampton and Aaron Smith has gotten very young. Heyward is the leader of the unit, and he only turned 25 a couple of weeks ago. The biggest question is who will start opposite Heyward. Right now it looks like a rotation of Thomas, Tuitt and Brian Arnfelt or Nick Williams will be used at right defensive end. The Steelers should also keep Keisel on call -- if he doesn't sign elsewhere -- in case some of the young players at defensive end don't progress quickly enough.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have nine picks in the 2014 NFL draft and this is the seventh in a series that looks at the nine positions they could address in just over a week. Keep in mind the Steelers are likely to draft two cornerbacks so they may not take a player at every position covered in this series.

Our seventh look is at the defensive line:

Added: Cam Thomas

Lost: Ziggy Hood, Al Woods and Brett Keisel (unsigned free agent)

Skinny: The Steelers need a starter opposite Cameron Heyward at defensive end and they also need depth up front. I could see them drafting two defensive linemen and wouldn’t be surprised if they take a pair of ends. Minnesota’s Ra'Shede Hageman and Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt both project as defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme and they are candidates for the Steelers if they trade down in the first round. The Steelers hosted both for pre-draft visits, and Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III is an option if he falls to them in the second round. Virginia’s Brent Urban looks like a classic 3-4 defensive end and he is a player to watch late in the draft's second day or early in the third day for the Steelers.

Draft likelihood: High

Extra points

Last DL drafted by the Steelers: Nick Williams, seventh round in 2013

Last DL drafted by the Steelers in the first round: Heyward, 2011

Last DL taken 15th overall in the draft: Albert Haynesworth, Titans, 2002

DL drafted under Kevin Colbert/Mike Tomlin: Seven

DL drafted under Colbert/Tomlin still with the Steelers: Two
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers have picked up the option year on defensive end Cameron Heyward’s contract in a move that was a matter of when and not if.

Heyward is now signed through the 2015 season though the Steelers will try to ink their 2011 first-round pick to a long-term deal before he gets to the final year of his contract.

Per the collective bargaining agreement brokered in 2011, first-round draft picks can sign four-year contracts with a team option for a fifth year.

The Steelers had until May 3 to pick up the option year on Heyward’s rookie deal.

Heyward, who turns 25 in early May, is one of the cornerstones of a defense that is in transition.

He led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures in 2013 despite not starting until the fifth game of the season and tied for second on the team with five sacks.

The 6-5, 288-pounder had been stuck behind 2009 first-round pick Ziggy Hood before beating him out last season. Hood signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Jaguars last month.

Heyward, the penultimate pick in the first round of the 2011 draft, had not started a game before emerging last season. His five sacks doubled his output in his first two NFL seasons combined.

Steelers draft review: 2009

April, 15, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The is the third in a series that reviews the Steelers’ drafts under general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin.

Next up is the 2009 draft:

Total picks: 9

Picks still with the team: 0

Wallace
Wallace
Best pick: WR Mike Wallace. The second of three third-round picks, Wallace made an immediate impact and he developed into one of the top deep threats in the NFL. Wallace had just over 4,000 receiving yards and 32 touchdown catches in four seasons in Pittsburgh and he made the Pro Bowl in 2011. His speed and production priced Wallace out of the Steelers’ range and he signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Dolphins last year. The Steelers were wise not to overpay for Wallace and his loss helped them net three compensatory draft picks this year.

Worst pick: G Kraig Urbik. Urbik, the Steelers’ second pick -- and first one in the third round -- lasted just one season in Pittsburgh and didn’t suit up for a game his rookie season. What is puzzling is why the Steelers were so quick to give up on Urbik. He landed in Buffalo and has started the past three seasons for the Bills. Whether there was some disconnect between the scouts/front office evaluation of Urbik and that of the coaches the fact remains that Steelers got nothing out the 79th overall pick of the draft.

Best value pick: TE David Johnson. The Steelers’ final pick – and the 241st overall selection in the draft – contributed as a blocking tight end/H-back as well as on special teams before knee and elbow injuries derailed his final two seasons in Pittsburgh. Johnson, who recently signed a two-year contract with the Chargers, caught 22 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown for the Steelers.

Also of note: Defensive end Ziggy Hood may be the most dubious first-round pick the Steelers have made since Colbert joined the organization in 2000. The former Missouri star proved to be durable and his effort and commitment were never an issue. But Hood was miscast as a hold-the-point-of-attack defensive end after shooting gaps and getting up the field as a tackle in college. Hood recently signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Jaguars. ... The Steelers erred in letting cornerback Keenan Lewis, a third-round pick, get away in free agency last year. A late bloomer, Lewis has developed into a quality starter. Now with the Saints, Lewis is sorely missed on a team that has to get younger at cornerback and replace Ike Taylor in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.

Final analysis/grade: This is a tricky evaluation because the Steelers largely did a good job in picking players who could succeed at this level albeit in varying roles. The problem is they have nothing to show from this class other than the three compensatory draft picks they were awarded this year in part for losing Wallace and Lewis in free agency. Meanwhile, at least four players from this class project as starters – for other teams – in 2014. I will give the Steelers a "C" since they got contributions from a handful of players in this draft and maximized the pick they used on Wallace.
Steel City wake-up: morning links

It is only March, which is why Mike Tomlin is not worried about the roster coming together.

The Steelers have depth concerns at a number of positions but Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings that the team will add 10 more players through free agency and the draft.

Defensive line is one area that the Steelers have to address, even though they have already signed Cam Thomas to provide depth at end. The Steelers lost defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods earlier this month, and the latter’s departure came as a surprise.

The Steelers were unaware that Woods was seriously negotiating with the Tennessee Titans until it was too late, reports Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

With the Steelers focused on filling holes on their roster, there doesn’t appear to be any hurry to re-sign quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a long-term contract. General manager Kevin Colbert acknowledged that the two sides could get a new deal done, but the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Alan Robinson doesn’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

The Steelers are keeping their options open in regard to James Harrison, who has made it clear he would like to return to Pittsburgh after spending last season in Cincinnati.

Colbert said bringing back Harrison is a possibility but it doesn’t sound like anything is imminent on that front.

The Steelers need depth at outside linebacker with Chris Carter the only backup behind starters Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones. The Steelers released LaMarr Woodley earlier this month and Colbert said the team cut ties with the seventh-year veteran so it would have more flexibility to sign free agents.

Free-agency review: Steelers

March, 18, 2014
3/18/14
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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.

Lance Moore to visit Steelers

March, 17, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers, faced with losing yet another veteran free agent, will host former Saints wide receiver Lance Moore for a visit on Tuesday, a source confirmed to ESPN.com.

Moore
Moore's visit will come a day after the Panthers meet with Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery in Charlotte, N.C.

Cotchery, who turns 32 in June, caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes last season, and he appeared to be among the most likely unrestricted free agents to re-sign with the Steelers.

With Cotchery, who caught 46 passes for 602 yards, also considering other options the Steelers have turned their attention to Moore, 30, who was released earlier this month by New Orleans.

The 5-9, 190-pounder caught 37 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns last season, but Moore is less than two years removed from his only 1,000-yard season in the NFL.

Moore caught 65 passes for 1,041 yards and six touchdowns in 2012.

The Steelers are thin at wide receiver with Emmanuel Sanders signing a three-year contract on Sunday that could be worth as much as $18 million with the Broncos. The Steelers have little in the way of experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

In addition to Moore, the Steelers are scheduled to host former Packers running back James Starks on Tuesday. Wide receiver and running back are among the positions where the Steelers are most lacking depth.

The Steelers have already lost a handful of free agents, including Sanders, defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods, running back Jonathan Dwyer and tight end David Johnson.

They have signed two free agents from other teams, safety Mike Mitchell and nose tackle Cam Thomas.

Steelers sign NT Cam Thomas

March, 14, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers finally added a body -- and a super-sized one at that -- to their depleted defensive line.

Thomas
The team signed Cam Thomas to a two-year contract on Friday, and it will be interesting to see what the addition of the former San Diego Chargers nose tackle means for Steve McLendon.

The Steelers can entertain the possibility of moving McLendon from nose tackle to defensive end, though that is anything but a given despite the need that they have at the position.

Thomas may be more of a traditional nose tackle than McLendon, and the 6-4, 330-pounder started 10 games there last season and recorded 23 tackles while intercepting a pass.

Thomas also has the flexibility to play defensive end, and his signing at the very least adds depth to the defensive line.

Thomas, whose nickname is "Baby Zilla," is only 27 years old and he was a fifth-round pick by the Chargers in the 2010 NFL draft. The Steelers had been interested in him when he was coming out of the University of North Carolina.

Thomas signed with the Steelers during a visit to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers are meeting with former Bills defensive end Alex Carrington this afternoon.

Whether the Steelers need an upgrade at nose tackle is a question that has stirred considerable debate.

The Steelers did not re-sign five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton last year, and they allowed 115.6 rushing yards per game in 2013 after yielding just 90.6 rushing yards per game the previous season.

That decline coincided with McLendon’s first year as a starter, raising questions as to whether the fourth-year veteran is more suited for defensive end or playing in a rotation in which he gets snaps at both end and nose tackle.

To pin the Steelers’ struggles in stopping the run solely on McLendon, however, would be unfair and inaccurate as inexperience at inside linebacker also contributed to them.

The signing of Thomas will fuel speculation that the Steelers intend to move McLendon to defensive end given how thin they are at the position.

Cameron Heyward is the only defensive end on the roster with significant NFL experience, and the Steelers lost Ziggy Hood and Al Woods to the Jaguars and Titans, respectively, earlier this week.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers could move quickly to sign a defensive end after losing Al Woods and Ziggy Hood in the last two days.

Carrington
A source confirmed to ESPN.com an earlier NFL Network report that free agent defensive end Alex Carrington will visit the Steelers on Thursday night.

Carrington, who turns 27 in June, has upside and could come at a reasonable price since he is coming off a season in which he missed the final 13 games because of a torn quadriceps.

If the 6-5, 307-pounder checks out physically, the Steelers could try to sign Carrington before he leaves Pittsburgh.

Carrington, a third-round pick of the Bills in 2010, is probably the best free-agent option for the Steelers as far as defensive ends, and they need sheer bodies at the position.

There are just three defensive ends on the roster, and only Cameron Heyward has any significant NFL experience.

Hood, the Steelers' first-round pick in 2009, signed Thursday morning with the Jaguars and Woods signed with the Titans on Wednesday night.

The Steelers could bring back Brett Keisel for one more season as the 12th-year veteran has no intention of retiring and would love to play his entire career in Pittsburgh.
PITTSBURGH -- The Tennessee Titans announced the signing of defensive end Al Woods to a multi-year contract on Wednesday night, marking the Pittsburgh Steelers' first significant loss to free agency.

Woods did not play much until the end of the 2013 season, but the fourth-year veteran started two games and acquitted himself well in the first extensive action of his NFL career.

Woods, who turns 27 years later this month, recorded 20 tackles and two sacks and drew interest from the Packers and the Cardinals before signing with the Titans.

The Steelers have just three defensive ends on their roster -- Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood are free agents -- and only one of them (Cameron Heyward) has any meaningful NFL experience.

Hood visited the Jaguars on Wednesday, according to the Florida Times-Union, and he is unlikely to return to the Steelers.

Keisel wants to keep playing and finish his career in Pittsburgh but the team has been quiet on the 12th-year veteran's front in regard to the Steelers.

It is way too early to say that the Steelers are in a dire situation at defensive end. But they have some work to do to replenish the position, and they can't rely on the draft to yield one or two players who can contribute immediately at defensive end.

The position is one of the hardest to learn on the Steelers defense in large part because so many college teams play a 4-3, and 3-4 ends generally played tackle before advancing to the NFL.

Defensive line coach John Mitchell is one of the best in the business but the Steelers are going to have to provide him with players to work with as they continue to re-tool a defense that has been in transition.

Earlier Wednesday the Steelers lost tight end David Johnson, who signed a two-year contract with the Chargers.

Johnson had played just five games the previous two seasons because of injuries, and he didn't project as more than the Steelers' No. 3 tight end in 2014.
Alex MackAP Photo/David RichardCleveland Browns center Alex Mack is the top free agent in the AFC North.

It's not a particularly strong free-agent class in the AFC North, although the top ones rank among the best in the NFL.

The free-agent group in the division took a hit when tight end Dennis Pitta, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson all signed before the official start of free agency.

So who's left? ESPN's four team reporters in the division -- Scott Brown, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon -- compiled a list of the top 15 free agents in the AFC North.

The Baltimore Ravens have the most free agents on this list with eight players. The Cleveland Browns have two of the top three free agents in the division, and the Cincinnati Bengals have two of the top five. The Pittsburgh Steelers placed one free agent in the top 10.

Here are the top 15 free agents in the AFC North:

1. Alex Mack, Browns center: At 28, the two-time Pro Bowler is in the prime of his career. Mack was so coveted by the Browns that they placed a $10 million transition tag on him. It will be interesting whether another team can pry him away from Cleveland.

2. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end: He was better in 2012 (11.5 sacks) than he was in 2013 (3.5 sacks). Still, his size, athleticism and age (27) will make him one of the most coveted pass-rushers this offseason.

3. T.J. Ward, Browns safety: Considered one of the top 10 safeties in the NFL, Ward will draw interest from teams looking to get more physical in the secondary. He makes an impact on run defense and has improved in coverage.

4. Eugene Monroe, Ravens offensive tackle: Some believe Monroe is the top offensive tackle in free agency, but ESPN's Bill Polian has five tackles ranked ahead of him. His athleticism and upside will command a big-money contract even though he's never been to a Pro Bowl.

5. Anthony Collins, Bengals offensive tackle: He is an underrated left tackle who didn't allow a sack last season. The question mark with Collins is how he'll play as a full-time starter. He made seven starts last season and has 25 starts in six seasons in Cincinnati.

6. Jacoby Jones, Ravens receiver-returner: He was one of the top playmakers in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run, and he ranked among the top five returners in the league last season. Jones is inconsistent and one-dimensional as a wide receiver, but he made a lot of clutch plays for the Ravens in two seasons.

7. Art Jones, Ravens defensive end: His impact as a run defender and interior pass-rusher makes him one of the top defensive tackles available. Teams, though, have to wonder whether he'll be the same type of player without Haloti Ngata drawing double-teams next to him.

8. Daryl Smith, Ravens linebacker: He was quietly one of the NFL's top comeback stories. In his first season with the Ravens, Smith led the team with 123 tackles and finished with five sacks, three interceptions, 19 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. His age (32 this month) could be a drawback.

9. Michael Oher, Ravens offensive tackle: His play never reached the expectations placed on a first-round pick. Oher is a throwback type of player whose strengths are durability and toughness. The biggest knocks against him are mental mistakes and pass protection.

10. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers wide receiver: He is almost 27, brings a lot of quickness and is coming off a season where he dropped just two passes (according to ESPN Stats & Information). What works against Sanders is the fact that he's never had more than 740 yards receiving in a season and averaged a career-low 11 yards per catch last season.

11. Jameel McClain, Ravens inside linebacker: He isn't among the most talented linebackers, but he prides himself on outworking others. Even though he came back from a spinal cord contusion last season, some teams will be wary of a player who had such a serious injury.

12. James Ihedigbo, Ravens safety: Known more for his special-teams play, Ihedigbo finished as the team's second-leading tackler. He'll try to find a team that will give him an opportunity to play defense now that the Ravens moved Matt Elam to his strong safety spot.

13. Ziggy Hood, Steelers defensive lineman: He never became the difference-maker the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round, but it would be unfair to call him a bust. One of the strongest players on the team, Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season.

14. Corey Graham, Ravens cornerback: He was a starter on the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl team and led Baltimore with four interceptions last season. Graham has proved to be a dependable nickelback, but he doesn't have the size or speed to be a full-time starter.

15. Brett Keisel, Steelers defensive lineman: He had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury. His age (35) will scare away a lot of teams.

Free-agency primer: Steelers

March, 7, 2014
3/07/14
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

 
Key free agents: WR Emmanuel Sanders, DE Ziggy Hood, WR Jerricho Cotchery, DE Al Woods, DE Brett Keisel, S Ryan Clark, RB Jonathan Dwyer, C Fernando Velasco, OT Guy Whimper, C/G Cody Wallace, TE David Johnson, LB Stevenson Sylvester.

Where they stand: General manager Kevin Colbert has said the Steelers may be more active in free agency than in recent years, but don’t expect their philosophy to fundamentally change. The Steelers will focus on their own players and are likely to sit out the first wave of free agency and target midlevel free agents after the marquee names have signed with other teams. Colbert hinted that the Steelers could try to land a potential starter via free agency, and they could use immediate help as well as depth at just about any position on defense. Nothing would help the Steelers more than if they could sign a free agent who will make an impact like Ryan Clark (2006) or James Farrior (2002) did, though they would have to splurge to get a free agent the caliber of Farrior.

What to expect: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the team's top free agent, is going to command more money than the Steelers are willing to pay. He will almost certainly sign elsewhere, though look for veteran Jerricho Cotchery to re-sign with the team after catching 10 touchdown passes last season. Defensive end Ziggy Hood is likely to sign elsewhere, making it imperative that the Steelers bring back Al Woods. They could also re-sign Brett Keisel for one more season if the two sides can find common ground on compensation. The Steelers have a good chance of signing most of their free agents with the exceptions of Sanders and Hood, and that is how they will add depth to their offensive line. Free agents they could target include former Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant, Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai and 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown. The Steelers met with former Lions safety Louis Delmas last month, but his knee issues may be too much of a red flag for them, and they have since re-signed veteran Will Allen.

Assessing three Steelers' free agents

February, 28, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have 21 players who can become free agents on March 11. Here is a look at the three who figure to draw the most interest on the open market if they do not re-sign with the Steelers before the start of free agency:

Worilds
OLB Jason Worilds: His breakout season couldn't have come at a better time as Worilds is in position to cash in after emerging as the Steelers' best pass-rusher in 2013. Worilds' value will be enhanced if players such as Carolina's Greg Hardy and Washington's Brian Orakpo are tagged or if they sign long-term deals to remain with their respective teams. That would further dilute a free-agent crop that is not exactly flush with pass-rushers. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger fetched a five-year, $40 million contract last year but the Browns way overpaid for a player who has 20 sacks in five NFL seasons. Worilds isn't going to command that kind of money after starting just one season though all it takes if he hits the open market is for one team to break the bank for him. A more realistic point of reference when it comes to assessing Worilds' value may be Brian Robison. The Vikings' defensive end signed a four-year, $28.3 million contract last October with more than $12 million guaranteed. Robison has been more productive than Worilds -- he has 25 1/2 sacks in the last three seasons -- but Worilds only turns 26 on Monday while Robison is 30.

Chances of Worilds re-signing with Steelers: I don't like them if he hits the open market unless the Steelers are willing to pay more than they probably would like to retain the fourth-year veteran. It would be ideal for the Steelers to sign Worilds before March 11 but if you are in his position why not let the market set his price, especially if there is a dearth of pass-rushers in this free-agent class? Worilds has said he wants assurances that the Steelers view him as a long-term starter at outside linebacker. While general manager Kevin Colbert can't make any guarantees as far as his role on the team Worilds will know how highly the Steeler think of him by how much they are willing to pay to keep him off the open market.

Sanders
WR Emmanuel Sanders: The fourth-year veteran had a solid, if sometimes maddening season, after cracking the starting lineup in 2013. Sanders established career-highs across the board, including six touchdown catches, but he also had some key drops. Don't be surprised though if a team is willing to pay him in the $5 million a season range a year after the Patriots were willing to give up a third-round draft pick to sign Sanders, then a restricted free agent, to a one-year $2.5 million contract. Riley Cooper signed a five-year, $25 million contract to stay in Philadelphia, taking a wide receiver out of the free-agent class and perhaps setting parameters for the kind of deal that Sanders, who turns 27 next month, is hoping to ink.

Chances of Sanders re-signing with the Steelers: It's hard to imagine a scenario in which he returns to Pittsburgh. The Steelers will let the market set Sanders' value before deciding if they want to make a run at keeping the former third-round draft pick. Teams are likely to bid on Sanders, one of the top receivers in an underwhelming class. Some team is going to pay Sanders the going rate for No. 2 wide receivers who still have upside, and if that is the case the Steelers are prepared to go with second-year man Markus Wheaton opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

Hood
Hood
DE Ziggy Hood: The Steelers' first-round pick in 2009 has not lived up to expectations though it would be unfair to call him a bust. Hood is one of the strongest players on the team, and he is the epitome of an effort-guy, but he lacks the athleticism to consistently push the pocket or chase down opposing backs when a play is run away from his side of the defense. Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season though he still played a lot and tied his career-high with 40 tackles while adding three sacks. He is one of three defensive ends on the roster who can become an unrestricted free agent in less than two weeks, and lack of depth at the position is the strongest argument for the Steelers re-signing Hood.

Chances of Hood re-signing with the Steelers: Not much better than Sanders'. The Steelers appear willing to let the market set Hood's price as well, and he may be attractive to teams that play 4-3 defenses and need help up front. Hood played nose tackle in a 4-3 defense in college. He did not line up directly over the center, which may be the best position for him. Hood, who just turned 27, could command $3 million a year on the open market. If that is the case the Steelers won't bid on the player who could not establish himself as a long-term starter in Pittsburgh.

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