Unrestricted Free Agents: Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch
Ben has 3 years left on his contract and is carrying a cap hit of around $18 million for each of those three seasons. The Steelers need to get younger at backup quarterback and probably can't rely on the Leftwich/Batch tandem again this season. Look for the Steelers to bring in a young quarterback to be the #3 this season and the #2 of the future. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing them use a mid-round pick in the draft on a QB that can be the #2 of the future.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Rashard Mendenhall
Restricted Free Agents: Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer
This situation is a mess after the Steelers cut Chris Rainey following his arrest earlier this month. Currently, fullback Will Johnson is the only back the Steelers have under contract. After his on-field struggles and off-field antics this past season, it's very likely that the Steelers will let Rashard Mendenhall walk away in free agency. Both Redman and Dwyer are Restricted Free Agents and the Steelers will likely tender them at the lowest possible level, around $1.323 million. This is a position the Steelers need to address in the offseason, either through free agency or the draft. Given the Steelers cap situation, signing a free agent does not seem likely so this should be a targeted position heading into the draft.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Mike Wallace, Plaxico Burress
Restricted Free Agents: Emmanuel Sanders
Mike Wallace will be gone in free agency, and after his disappointing 2013 season, it's hard to see the Steelers making a big push in free agency to keep him. The big question is what the Steelers will do with Emmanuel Sanders. As a Restricted Free Agent, look for the Steelers to tender him in the spring then try to work out a long-term deal before training camp. Per the RFA tender numbers, a 1st round tender is $2.88 million, a 2nd round tender is $2.02 million or an original round tender is $1.32 million. Since Sanders was a 3rd round pick, I would bet that the Steelers opt for the Original Round Tender and save $700K against the cap in the short-term then try to work out a long-term deal with Sanders, assuming he signs his tender. Cotchery's $1.5 million cap hit ($1 million in salary) could make him a candidate for a cap casualty, but that would leave the Steelers very thin at receiver.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Leonard Pope
The big question mark here is Heath Miller's ability to recover from the devastating knee injury he suffered against Cincinnati. If Miller is on the same trajectory as Rashard Mendenhall was, he may miss the first few weeks of the regular season. This would leave the Steelers with a gaping hole at tight end that they would probably look to fill with a veteran to pair with David Paulson. Sadly, former Steeler Weslye Saunders got picked up by the Colts after we cut him last year, so he is probably not an option at this point.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Max Starks, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky
Whenever a book is written about contracts in the salary cap era, Willie Colon's contract will be featured prominently in the chapter on worst contracts ever. In the first 3 years of his deal, Colon has played a total of 7 games and it's debatable how well he has actually played in those outings. With 3 years remaining on his deal and cap hits around $8 million each year, the time may have finally come for the Steelers to part ways with Colon. Max Starks was the only member of the line to play every snap last year and he'll likely go out and test the free agent market. I can't blame Max for going out on the market. The Steelers won't pay him more than the veteran minimum and he's proven that he's clearly worth more than that. If the Steeler try to re-sign one of their own here, it should be Ramon Foster who has started 42 games over the last 4 seasons. The rest of the line is in pretty good shape with Gilbert, Adams, Pouncey and DeCastro all under their cap-friendly rookie deals for at least the next 2 years.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Casey Hampton
Restricted Free Agents: Steve McLendon
The Defensive End position seems to be set, at least for 2013, with Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood under contract for one more year. If the Steelers get really tight against the cap, Keisel could be a cap casualty. He has a base salary around $2.8 million plus another million in pro-rated signing bonus which would become dead money if he was cut. Keisel has maintained his high level of play and rated as the 10th best defensive end in the league last year per Advanced NFL Stats. Nose Tackle is a bit more of a concern as Casey Hampton likely won't be back (unless he's willing to play for the veteran minimum) and Steve McLendon is slated to be an RFA. The Steelers would like to keep McLendon around and will probably tender him at the minimum value and hope no other team signs him. Alameda Ta'amu is still floating around the fringes of the roster but counting on him to be a future contributor isn't a good idea.
While this looks like a position of strength on paper, more or less everyone in the Steelers universe has accepted the fact that James Harrison has likely played his last game in black and gold unless he is willing to take a significant pay cut. Harrison's base salaries are $6.5 million in 2013 and $7.5 million in 2014 coupled with $2.6 million in pro-rated money brings his cap hit over $9 million each season. Given the Steelers current cap situation, it's unlikely they can afford this much. LaMarr Woodley is also due a ton of money, but given his age the Steelers are more likely to restructure his deal than cut him loose. Woodley has to be better in 2013 than he was in 2012 when he spent most of the season battling a hamstring injury.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Larry Foote, Brandon Johnson
Restricted Free Agents: Stevenson Sylvester
If you're the kind of person that puts a lot of stock in mock drafts, you probably think the Steelers are almost guaranteed to take an inside linebacker in the first round this year. While that very well may be the case, most mock drafters forget about Sean Spence's place on the roster and focus solely on the age/free agency of Larry Foote. Spence was tearing it up in camp last year before suffering a brutal knee injury in the final preseason game. His recovery will dictate the Steelers needs at this position. They might be able to bring Larry Foote back on a 1-year deal at the veteran minimum to help bridge the gap, but the team's need at inside linebacker will depend solely on the long-term health of Spence.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Keenan Lewis
Exclusive Rights Free Agents: Demarcus Van Dyke
Of all the free agents this year, Keenan Lewis might be the most important for the Steelers to keep. A 3rd round pick in 2009, Lewis finally took over as a starter last year and showed marked improvement in his play over previous seasons. He finished second in the league in passes defended even though he did not come down with any interceptions. Ike Taylor is carrying a cap hit close to $10 million the next two seasons, but as we saw when he wasn't in the lineup - he's worth that much. Cortez Allen came on strong as the season drew to a close and was responsible for 5 turnovers in the last two games.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Will Allen, Ryan Mundy
This is a bit of a precarious situation for the Steelers as both Polamalu and Clark are over 30 and only have a few years left on their contracts. The best case scenario here would be to try to bring back Will Allen as the #3 safety for next year and add another young safety in the draft to groom as the eventual replacement. Undrafted Free Agent Robert Golden saw some playing time down the stretch due to injuries, but he still has a ways to go to replace what Troy or Ryan bring to the lineup.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Greg Warren
Shaun Suisham had a bounce-back year in 2012 and was one of the best kickers in the league after being the worst kicker in the league in 2011. He still has 2 years left on his deal and is slated to make $1.4 million per year the next two years. That base salary, coupled with a $350K pro-rated signing bonus is way too much to be handing out to a kicker in the current cap era. Some of the most successful kickers in the league were either undrafted free agents or late round picks, including Kai Forbath in Washington, Blair Walsh in Minnesota, Justin Tucker in Baltimore and Greg Zuerlein in St Louis. The Steelers need to look for a young kicker capable of kicking in poor weather conditions to alleviate some of Suisham's cap hit.