Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 Olympics Preview: Biathlon


Sprint: Men's 10km, Women's 7.5km
Pursuit: Men's 12.5km, Women's 10km
Individual: Men's 20km, Women's 15km
Mass Start: Men's 15km, Women's 12.5km
Relay: Men's 4 x 7.5km, Women's 4 x 6km, Mixed 4 x 6km/7.5km


The "Norwegian driveby" combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Think that sounds easy? You're wrong. Depending on the shooting position (standing or "prone" which is laying on your stomach), athletes get 5 shots to hit 5 metal targets 50 meters away. From the prone position, the target is about the size of a golf ball and from the standing position it is about the size of a grapefruit. Basically, 50 meters is the size of an Olympic swimming pool which means athletes have to shoot a target the size of a golf ball from a swimming pool's length away. Penalties for each miss can either be a minute of added time of haivng to ski a 150-meter penalty loop. There are 11 different events from individual (20km for men, 15km for women with 4 shooting segments) and sprint (10km for men, 7.5km for women with 3 shooting stops). The sprint is basically a shorter version of the individual race but it also serves as the qualifier for the Pursuit (12.5km for men, 10km for women) which pits the top 60 finishers from Sprint. In Pursuit, the starting times are staggered by the order of finish in the Sprint based on the margin of time separating the finishers. The Mass Start event is basically total chaos between the top 30. The Relay event is a typical 4-person relay race that involves skiing and shooting. For the first time ever, there will be a mixed relay involving teams of men and women.


Germany has traditionally cleaned house at biathlon, winning 43 medals over the history of the event, including 16 of the 64 Golds. That's not even including the 11 medals (3 golds) won by East Germany and 5 medals (1 gold) won by West Germany. Norway features the man who has been called the best biathlete of all time in Ole Einar Bjorndalen. At 40 years old this will be his 6th Olympic games and he has 6 Golds, 4 Silvers and 1 Bronze in his career (including a sweep in Salt Lake where he won the Individual, Sprint, Pursuit and Relay). That title could be under threat from countryman Emil Hegle Svendsen who won 2 Golds and a Silver in his first Olympics in Vancouver. Svendsen is currently second in the Biathlon World Cup standings behind Martin Fourcade of France. On the women's side, Norwegian Tora Berger is ranked first in the world and is the defending gold medalist in the Individual race. Norway is the top-ranked nation on the women's side with Ukraine, Russia and Germany in close pursuit.

US Hopefuls

The US has never medaled in biathlon, but have made significant investments in the program since 2006. In Vancouver only one American had a top-10 finish. America's best hope probably lies in Tim Burke. The US men's team is ranked 9th in the world and the women's team is ranked 12th.


Norway and Germany will clean house. Four members of the Russian biathlon team just failed a drug test, so they'll probably be banished to Siberia or something.

2014 Olympics Preview: Alpine Skiing


Men and Women both compete in:
Giant Slalom


The Downhill skiing event is one of the highlights of the Winter Games. The Downhill course is the longest and the fastest, featuring rapid drops in altitude that will challenge the racers as they maneuver through the course. There are three different "Slalom" races of varying length which do not feature the speed of downhill runs but require precise turning to maneuver through the gates. The Slalom is the shortest course and requires the sharpest turns while the Giant Slalom and Super-G (or Super Giant Slalom) are closer to the length and speed of downhill while still requiring the precise turns of the Slalom. In Downhill and Super-G, competitors only get one run through the course and the fastest time takes home gold. In Slalom and Giant Slalom two different courses are devised for skiers to navigate and the times are added together. The "Combined" event features one run through a downhill course and one run through a slalom course with the two times added together. This year, 77 different nations are scheduled to have athletes participate in ski events with the US and Austria fielding the most with 20.


Austria has been traditionally dominant in Alpine Skiing, and has almost twice as many medals all-time (105) as the next closest nation (Switzerland, 56). Austrian skiers have earned at least one medal in every Olympics since 1948 while the Swiss have medalled at least once since 1968.  The United States won the most skiing medals in Vancouver in 2010, taking home 8 of 29.

US Hopefuls

The biggest news from the US ski team has come from the women's side where Lindsay Vonn will not be competing because of a knee injury. America's best hope on the women's side is Julia Mancuso who took Silver in Downhill and Combined in Vancouver. On the men's side, Bode Miller and Ted Ligety have won the last two Golds in Combined with Miller having 5 medals to his name. This will be Bode's fifth Olympics and he is as close as it comes to a household name in American skiing.


Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal currently leads the World Cup standings with Austrian Marcel Hirsher and Frechman Alexis Pinturault in the mix. The American ski program has drastically improved over the last 20 years, so you have to like Miller, Ligety and Mancuso's chances to bring home medals.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

WPIAL Alignment for 2014 Announced

The WPIAL announced the realignment of their conferences today with Quad-A seeing basically no change from the last two seasons while Class A sees a total overhaul. I'll be adding maps to this post later when I get them made, but for now here are the new conferences.


Foothills: Altoona, Connellsville, Hempfield, Kiski Area, Latrobe, McKeesport, Norwin, Penn-Trafford, Plum

View AAAA Foothills in a larger map

The Foothills Conference stays at 9 members after losing Gateway to AAA they gain Plum, who fits geographically but has also been one of the weakest Quad-A teams over the last few seasons.

Northern Eight: Butler, Central Catholic, Fox Chapel, North Allegheny, North Hills, Pine-Richland, Seneca Valley, Shaler

View AAAA Northern Eight in a larger map

The Northern Eight Conference stays the same as it was the last two seasons. The only variable here will be where Central Catholic plays their home games. They played two "home" games at Highmark Stadium last year which, despite Mark Madden throwing a hissy fit about football being played in a soccer stadium, was a really cool venue for high school football.

Southeastern: Baldwin, Bethel Park, Canon-McMillan, Mt Lebanon, Penn Hills, Peters Twp, Upper St Clair, Woodland Hills

View AAAA Southeastern in a larger map

The Southeastern loses Plum, who finished its two seasons in the Southeastern Conference with an 0-16 record. With 8 teams, this remains the strongest league in Quad-A.


Big Nine: Albert Gallatin, Belle Vernon, Elizabeth Forward, Laurel Highlands, Ringgold, Thomas Jefferson, Trinity, Uniontown, West Mifflin

View AAA: Big Nine in a larger map

The Big Nine stays the exact same as it has been the last two seasons, which isn't a surprise given that none of its teams changed classifications.

Greater Allegheny: Franklin Regional, Gateway, Greensburg Salem, Hampton, Hollidaysburg, Indiana, Knoch, Mars, Yough

View AAA Greater Allegheny in a larger map

This was a relatively easy swap. The GAC lost two teams (Highlands and Derry, both moving down to AA) while AAA as a whole gained two teams (Gateway and Yough). The relative geographic proximity of the schools moving in (Gateway is close to Franklin Regional and Yough is relatively close to where Derry is) made it easy to simply add these two teams into the GAC.

Parkway: Ambridge, Blackhawk, Central Valley, Chartiers Valley, Hopewell, Montour, Moon, New Castle, West Allegheny

View AAA: Parkway in a larger map

The Parkway Conference remains the same, though it's reign as "The best conference in AAA" might be under attack now that Gateway has joined the GAC.


Allegheny: Apollo-Ridge, Burrell, Deer Lakes, Ford City, Freeport, Highlands, Kittanning, Shady Side Academy, Valley, West Shamokin

View AA Allegheny Conference in a larger map

If this alignment looks relatively familiar, it should. This is mostly the same teams that were in the Allegheny Conference from 2010 and 2011. This should provide for some great rivalries between Highlands, Freeport, Burrell and Valley along with having Kittanning and Ford City being in relatively close proximity. With the Armstrong Jr/Sr High set to open in 2015 (which will combine Kittanning and Ford City high schools) this conference could see a change after just one year.

Century: Carlynton, East Allegheny, Keystone Oaks, Quaker Valley, Seton-La Salle, South Allegheny, South Fayette, South Park, Sto-Rox, Steel Valley

View AA Century in a larger map

The Century Conference loses two of its bottom members (McGuffey and Burgettstown) and gains Carlynton and Sto-Rox from Class A and gets East Allegheny as a transfer from the Allegheny Conference. These additions all make sense geographically and this figures to be a brutal conference to navigate.

Interstate: Brownsville, Burgettstown, Charleroi, Derry, McGuffey, Mt Pleasant, Southmoreland, Washington, Waynesburg

View AA Interstate in a larger map

Washington has ping-ponged back and forth between the Interstate and the Century Conference over the last few realignments but finally gets some consistency by being kept in the Interstate Conference. Also added are Burgettstown and McGuffey from the Century Conference along with Derry to replace the departed GCC and Jeanette. The strangest addition here is Burgettstown, which does not fit geographically at all with the Interstate Conference. East Allegheny played in the Interstate Conference previously and would have been a much better geographic fit than Burgettstown.

Midwestern: Aliquippa, Beaver, Beaver Falls, Ellwood City, Freedom, Laurel, Mohawk, New Brighton, Summit Academy

View AA Midwestern in a larger map

The Midwestern Conference only saw two changes: swapping Laurel and Riverside (with Laurel moving up to AA and Riverside moving down to A, this was an easy decision) and Summit Academy moving in. The interesting thing to see from a scheduling standpoint will be if the WPIAL forces the two AA conferences with 9 teams (Midwestern and Interstate) to play each other in non-conference games or if the Midwestern Conference will be allowed to keep their traditional non-conference slate against teams from the Parkway Conference in AAA. If the WPIAL forces the two AA conferences to play each other, this would mean the temporary end of the Aliquippa-Ambridge rivalry game.


Big 7: Neshannock, Riverside, Rochester, Shenango, South Side Beaver, Union, Vincentian, Western Beaver

View A: Big Seven in a larger map

The Big 7 lost Sto-Rox and Laurel to AA and in their place were added Riverside (an easy geographic swap with Laurel) and Vincentian. Sto-Rox won the conference title the last two seasons while Riverside was one of the weakest teams in the Midwestern Conference in AA. Vincentian is relatively unproven having played their requisite "start-up" years, they did score a few victories against Tri-County South opponents last year. The Big 7 also lost OLSH who played just two seasons in the conference after starting in the Eastern Conference. One scheduling challenge for the WPIAL will be if Vincentian continues to play their home games at JC Stone Field in North Park, which is also the home stadium for the defending State Champion CWNC Trojans.

Black Hills: Avonworth, Bishop Canevin, Brentwood, Chartiers-Houston, Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, Fort Cherry Northgate, OLSH

View A: Black Hills in a larger map

The Black Hills Conference has traditionally been a conference comprised of teams from south of the Mon/Ohio Rivers, but that tradition got thrown out the window in this realignment. The WPIAL was in a tough situation with the geographic locations of some of their schools and obviously made the decision to group the Black Hills schools along the I-79 corridor. Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry is set to open in 2014, but the defending Class A State Champions are still scheduled to play their games at Lt. J.C. Stone Field in North Park.

Eastern: Clairton, GCC, Jeanette, Leechburg, Monessen, Riverview, Serra, Springdale, Wilkinsburg

View A Eastern in a larger map

In somewhat of a surprising move, the WPIAL moved Clairton, Monessen and Serra out of the Black Hills conference and into the Eastern Conferece, replacing Avonworth, Northgate and North Catholic. The addition of GCC and Jeanette to Class A brings two traditional AA powers and this figures to be a brutal conference with Clairton, Monessen and Springdale all being traditional Class A powerhouses. This is a bit of a blast from the past as the 2004/5 cycle featured Clairton, Serra, Springdale, Leechburg, Riverview and Wilkinsburg in the Eastern Conference (along with Apollo-Ridge and Duquesne).

Tri-County South: Avella, Bentworth, Beth-Center, California, Carmichaels, Frazier, Jefferson-Morgan, Mapletown, West Greene

View A Tri-County South in a larger map

The TCS loses Geibel, who has struggled to field a team the last few seasons and apparently will not play in 2014. In their place, California gets to return to the TCS after two years of struggling in the Black Hills Conference. California has reportedly been lobbying the WPIAL for a return to the TCS for two years since they were moved to the Black Hills, and they should be one of the top teams in the TCS moving forward.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Expanding the Playoffs Part II: Data Analysis

In Part I of my series on examining the NFL's proposed expansion of the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams, I took a look at how history may have been different if the NFL had instituted this policy in 2002 when the league expanded to its current playoff format of 4 division champions and 2 wild card teams per conference. Prior to 2002, the each conference had 3 division champions and 3 wild card teams that reached the postseason. With the proposed expansion of the postseason, there would be 7 teams per conference and only the top seeds would get a bye. For Part II of the series, I look at some of the data for the teams that finished in 7th place in their conference standings over the last 12 years.

In any given season, it is debatable about which teams "deserve" to make the postseason. One of the biggest misconceptions is the perceived "dropoff" from the playoff teams to the teams that did not make the postseason. On average, the 6th seeded team has had 9.75 wins per season while the 7th place team has averaged 9.08. As the second chart above shows, 7 of the 24 teams that finished in 7th place had double-digit wins. Each of these instances occurred in separate seasons meaning that in 7 of the last 12 seasons (more than half of the time) a team with double-digit wins has actually missed the postseason. The first chart shows an interesting trend from a parity perspective: in the first half of the chart (2002-2008) there were 4 AFC teams and no NFC teams that finished in 7th place with double-digit wins while in the second half (2009-present) there were 3 10-win NFC teams and no AFC teams that finished 7th. Additionally, in the first half 3 of the 7th place teams in the NFC were 8-8 (none in the AFC) while in the second half there were two 7th place AFC teams (both the Steelers) at 8-8 and just one NFC team. Clearly, as we have seen on the field, the balance of power in the league has shifted from the AFC in the early-to-mid 00's to the NFC in the early 2010s.

When comparing the number of wins by 6th and 7th place teams, one has to expect some lowering of records (these are teams that finished lower in the standings afterall). Since 2002, only two teams with 8-8 records have finished 6th (though we should also count the 8-8 Rams of 2004 that were the #5 seed at 8-8) while 6 of the 24 8th place teams had .500 records. While some would say this is increasing the number of mediocre teams in the playoffs, we must also remember that 7 of the 7th place teams finished with 10+ wins. In my opinion, the 6 8-8 teams that would have made the playoffs are balanced out by the 7 double-digit win teams that would have reached the postseason, so it is hard to say that the playoff pool is being definitively muddled when that many quality teams with 10+ wins are also getting in.

Interestingly, when taking the rest of the playoff field into consideration, the profile of 7th place teams actually compares closest with #4 seeds. On average, #4 seeds (the worst division champion) have had 9.65 wins, slightly less than #6 seeds. On 10 occasions, the 7th place team had a record better than or equal to the record of the #4 seed in their conference. In 9 other instances the 7th place team finished only a game behind the #4 seed in the overall standings.

Logistically (and regardless of record) it is easy for football fans to break teams into "tiers" based on whether or not they made the playoffs. However, based on the first chart above we see that only 4 of the 7th place teams finished more than a game behind the 6th place team in the standings. In fact, almost half (11 of 24) of the 7th place teams finished tied with the 6th place team but missed the playoffs due to tiebreakers. A majority of those 11 that missed due to tiebreakers (7) finished in 7th place alone and did not require additional tiebreakers to award them the 7th spot in the standings. On the whole (as the second chart shows) a majority of 7th place teams (14) finished in 7th alone and were not tied with the team that finished 8th. This would lend credence to the notion that the "tier" of teams that is at the top of the league is actually after the 7th place team, not after the 6th place team.

One of the most interesting items I found when combing through the data was how the 7th place teams finished the season. 20 of the 24 teams finished the final quarter with at least 2 wins. Additionally, as many teams (10) finished with winning records in the final quarter (going either 3-1 or 4-0) as posted .500 records over the final four games. The success of 7th place teams over the final quarter of the season is borne out when we look at their streaks at the end of the season. A vast majority (18 of 24) ended the season with a win in Week 17 with 10 teams having won at least their final two games. The next question which arises is - how did these teams get here? Were they teams that were leading the pack during the season and fell off or teams that were lagging behind that sped up? The laws of averages are mostly true in this case. Of the teams that finished in 7th, they averaged 6.7 wins after 12 games and finished with an average of 9.1, proving that they were slightly better than average (2.4 wins) over the last 4 games. Interestingly, three of the four worst teams after 12 weeks (two teams were 4-8 and two were 5-7) finished the season on 4-game winning streaks. All four of the 7th place finishers that were the worst after 12 games only missed out on the playoffs because of tiebreakers. Another outlier is the top team after 12 weeks (the 9-3 Bucs of 2008) were the only team to lose all 4 games down the stretch and still finish in 7th.

On the whole, the trends we have seen throughout this analysis remain true: most of the teams that finish in 7th were middle-of-the-pack teams that were battling for position after 12 games and only barely missed out on the postseason. Most of the 7th place finishers did close out the season strong with at least 1 win and 10 of them finished with wins in at least the last two weeks, which supports the theory that 7th place teams could pose a threat in the playoffs and would not simply be a stomping mat for the #2 seeds. In fact, as we remember from Part I of this series, many of the potential #7 seeds had scored victories over the 2-seeds during the season. Another trend to note here is that adding a 3rd wild card team does allow for more "forgiveness" of early-season set-backs. As we saw with the 4 teams that were either 4-8 or 5-7, a strong finish to the season would have a greater probability of propelling a poor-starting team into the postseason. Whether this is good or bad for football is debatable, but it may to an extent lessen the blow that some teams suffer when a significant play-maker is injured. For instance, despite Jay Cutler's injuries which led to mid-season losing streaks, the Bears would have still made the playoffs in 2011 and 2012.

Speaking of the Bears, based on past data, the NFC North is the division that would have benefitted the most from having 7 teams in the playoffs. These findings don't really have much bearing on the future, as (at least in theory) every team has an equal chance of finishing 7th at the beginning of any given season. Looking at the historical data, the addition of a 7th team would not be a case of the rich getting richer. The 5 teams with the most playoff appearances (Indianapolis, New England, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Seattle) only accounted for 2 of the 24 7th place teams. The biggest benefit was seen by the "middle of the road" teams such as Minnesota and New Orleans who would move from the middle of the pack in terms of playoff appearances into the top 10. Denver and Pittsburgh would move from 8th and 6th in the league in playoff appearances into the top 5. Chicago would move from 21st into the top half. Interestingly, as you may remember from my post on the historical breakdown yesterday, two of these squads (Minnesota and Chicago) fired coaches after finishing in 7th place. One would have to wonder if Mike Tice and Lovie Smith would have kept their jobs if they had made the playoffs as the 3rd Wild Card.

The final point of analysis, which is a little harder to gauge, is the potential impact on #2 seeds. Under the current alignment, 2-seeds get byes to the second round. With the new alignment they would be forced to play an opening round game against the 7th place team. On one hand this could be beneficial to #2 seeds as it could allow them to get on a run and build momentum towards a Super Bowl run. On the other hand, it provides another opportunity for injury and could derail their Super Bowl hopes even sooner. 2 seeds have been moderately successful in the playoffs since the realignment, accounting for 5 of the 22 teams to have reached the Super Bowl. By contrast, #3 and #4 seeds (who have had to play an extra game) have only combined for 5 Super Bowl appearances. Wild Card teams have only reached the Super Bowl 3 times, but they have won all of their appearances. In fact, teams that have to play on Wild Card Weekend that do reach the Super Bowl have been incredibly successful, going 6-2. One other interesting note from the playoff data is that from 2002-2012 there was been no difference between #3 and #4 seeds in the first round, with both seeds going 13-9. Of the 9 6-seeds that have managed to advance past the first round, they have held their own against top-seeded teams, going 5-4 while #5 seeds went only 3-6. Both #3 and #4 seeds that made it out of the first round suffered similar fates in the second round, with both seeds posting 4-9 records. The most Super Bowls have actually been won by #2 seeds (3) though they have reached the Super Bowl less often than top seeds, who have accounted for 9 of the 22 Super Bowl teams (though #1 seeds are just 2-9 in Super Bowls since 2002). As the third chart shows, the danger of playing an extra game is that teams have a lower win percentage in their second and third playoff games (though the reason that the win percentage in second games is so low is mostly due to the poor records of teams from Wild Card Weekend in the divisional round (16-28) where they faced teams that had a bye. This is were 2-seeds will lose out the most. 2-seeds have been the best performing group in their opening playoff games (a 15-7 record as opposed to 13-9 marks by the other division winners and 9-13 marks by Wild Card teams), yet they will lose their advantage of having the extra bye week under the new system.


So what conclusions can we draw from expanding the playoff field? First, that the field will not necessarily be muddled by worse teams making the postseason. As discussed, all of the 7th place teams in the last 12 years have had at least 8 wins and there have been slightly more 7th place teams with double-digit wins (7) as there have been with .500 records (6). Secondly, these are teams that are hot entering the postseason. All but 4 of them won at least two of their final 4 games and all but 6 ended the season with a winning streak. Third, it is hard to say that most of these teams are "undeserving" of making the playoffs as 11 of the 24 missed out because of a tiebreaker and all but 4 finished within a game of the #6 seed. On the whole, 14 of the 24 7th place finishers ended the season there on their own and did not earn the spot via tiebreaker.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Expanding the Playoffs Part I: Recent History

The NFL recently announced that they are considering expanding the pool of playoff teams to include another Wild Card in each conference. The plan would mean that four division champions and three wild cards would make up the postseason field. Only the top team in each conference would earn a bye under this plan. The NFL has been operating under its current 8-division 12-team playoff model since 2002 when the Houston Texans were added to the league as an expansion franchise. In Part I of a series examining the impact of expanding the playoffs, I take a look back at how the NFL playoffs would have been different (and the impact on the relative "excitement" of Week 17) if an extra Wild Card spot had been in play since 2002. Part II of the series will examine some of the data and statistical trends that would have been changed by the addition of an extra team from each conference to the postseason.


The first season that the NFL used the 8-division format had a wild playoff chase in the AFC. As it was, 5 teams finished with 9-7 records and 3 more finished 8-8. Entering Week 17, Miami led the AFC East at 9-6, followed by the Patriots and Jets at 8-7. Cleveland, Denver, San Diego and Kansas City were also 8-7. On Saturday, the Raiders beat the Chiefs and knocked them out. On a wild Sunday, the Patriots stormed back from an 11-point 4th quarter deficit against the Dolphins and won on an Adam Vinatieri field goal in overtime. Meanwhile the Browns overcame a 6-point deficit with 14 4th quarter points and a broken leg to quarterback Tim Couch to finish 9-7. Both the Patriots and Dolphins were eliminated when the Jets beat the Packers in the afternoon and won the division. Elsewhere, the Chargers (who had started the season 6-1) blew a 14-point lead in the last 8 1/2 minutes against Seattle and lost in overtime. The Broncos also won to finish 9-7. The AFC East 3-way tie was won by the Jets with the Patriots finishing second. The Browns got #6 seed, which led to one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history as Tommy Maddox led the Steelers back against the Browns.

If there had been an extra team, the Broncos, Patriots and Dolphins would have faced a tiebreaker. Despite Miami having the better conference record and having beaten the Broncos head-to-head and split with the Patriots, the Dolphins would have been eliminated from contention based on the division tiebreaker with New England. The Broncos would have been awarded the 7th playoff spot based on their head-to-head win over the Patriots and would have faced Tennessee in the first round.

In the NFC, the eventual Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers wouldn't have gotten a first round bye and would have had to face the New Orleans Saints in the first round. The Saints were the 3rd highest scoring team in the league that year and had already beaten the Bucs twice that season. New Orleans missing the playoffs was really their own fault. They were 9-4 on December 8. From there they lost their last 3 games, all to teams with losing records (6-10 Minnesota, 2-14 Cincinnati, 7-9 Carolina) and missed the playoffs by a half game to the 9-6-1 Falcons.


The 2003 playoff race was a bit less exciting than the 2002 version. In the AFC, the Broncos won 4 of their last 5 to finish at 10-6 and earn a playoff spot over the 10-6 Dolphins based on finishing 2 games better in conference play. The Broncos already had the 6th seed wrapped up heading into Week 17 so this wasn't very exciting. Had the Dolphins made the playoffs, they would have faced the Kansas City Chiefs.

In the NFC, a last second touchdown pass from Josh McCown (yes, same one) led the 4-12 Arizona Cardinals to a shocking upset of the Minnesota Vikings, knocking Minnesota out of the playoffs. Had the Vikings won, they would have topped the Packers for the NFC North title with both teams finishing at 10-6. Had the Vikings won, the Packers would have missed the playoffs by finishing with worse conference record than Seattle and Dallas. As it was, the Packers won the division and hosted the Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs, which set the stage for this memorable moment.

As a secondary result of the Cardinals last-second win, the San Diego Chargers got the #1 pick in the draft, which led to the Eli Manning fiasco. The Cardinals fell to #3 and took Larry Fitzgerald. Steelers fans owe a bit of thanks to Josh McCown and Nathan Poole that things fell the way they did which enabled Ben Roethlisberger to be available at #11 for the Steelers.


The 2004 season also provided for an exciting Week 17. In the AFC the Broncos and Bills entered the final week of the season at 9-6 with the Bills needing to only beat the Steelers JV team to reach the playoffs. Instead, Willie Parker went wild and the Bills lost, enabling the Broncos (who handled the Colts who were resting their starters) to reach the playoffs as the 6th seed. The Bills tumbled to a 3-way tie with Jacksonville and Baltimore at 9-7. If there had been an extra team, the Bills would have lost out based on head-to-head losses to the Jaguars and Ravens. The Jags edged the Ravens in the common opponents tiebreaker, which would have sent them to New England.

In the NFC, Minnesota entered Week 17 at 8-7 with St Louis, New Orleans and Carolina battling for the last Wild Card spot at 7-8. The Saints beat the Panthers to eliminate Carolina but were themselves eliminated when the Rams beat the Jets in overtime. A Vikings loss to a bad Redskins team complicated the playoff picture with the Vikings, Rams and Saints all finishing at 8-8. The Rams got the #5 seed based on conference record and the Vikings the #6 seed due to a head-to-head victory over New Orleans. With an extra team, the Saints also would have made the playoffs and faced the Atlanta Falcons, who they had just beat in Week 16. In reality, the Saints had dug their own grave with a 4-8 record at the beginning of December and only a 4-game winning streak to close out the season brought them close to playoff contention.


The 2005 season was a rarity that saw every team in the postseason have double-digit wins in the regular season. The Steelers closed on a 4-game winning streak to earn the 6th seed in the AFC at 11-5, edging the Chiefs by one game. The Chiefs also closed the season with back-to-back wins but it was two early-December losses that enabled the Steelers to hurdle them in the playoff chase. With a 7th team, the Chiefs would have traveled to Denver in the first round of the playoffs (the teams split their regular season meetings). Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil retired following the 2005 season.

In the NFC, the Cowboys and Redskins entered Week 17 tied at 9-6 but the Redskins had already swept the season series. When Washington beat Philadelphia in the afternoon, it rendered Dallas' night game with St Louis meaningless. However, with an extra team in the playoffs, Dallas would have had something to play for as they would have needed a win to top Minnesota for the 7th seed. As it was, the Vikings finished in 7th based on a better conference record than the Cowboys and would have traveled to Chicago in the opening round to face a Bears team they had just beat 34-10 in Week 17 (granted, the Bears rested many of their starters). A secondary effect here was that the Vikings fired coach Mike Tice after the season, though that could have been because of his inability to control his locker room and the boat party scandal that made waves during the Vikings bye week. Perhaps Tice still gets fired if the Vikings make the playoffs, but this is the first instance where we see the #7 team firing a coach, so it is worth noting.


Week 17 in 2006 provided for high drama in the AFC. The Jets and Broncos entered with 9-6 records with the Chiefs, Bengals, Titans and Jaguars all lurking at 8-7. The Titans were on a miracle run of 6 straight wins before falling to New England in Week 17. The Steelers traded shots with the Bengals in the 4th quarter and ultimately won in overtime on a Santonio Holmes touchdown to send Bill Cowher out with a win and knock the Bengals from playoff contention. The Bengals seemingly controlled their destiny at 8-5 but dropped their final 3 games to miss the playoffs. The Chiefs rode a monster effort (33 carries, 138 yards, 3 TDs) from Larry Johnson to a victory over Jacksonville then earned the 6th seed when Denver lost to the 49ers in overtime later in the day. With a 7th team in the playoffs, Denver would have already had a playoff berth wrapped up when the Bengals, Titans and Jaguars lost so their loss would not have changed anything. The Broncos would have faced the Ravens in the opening round, who they beat early in the season.

The NFC race was also exciting as 4 teams finished tied for the last playoff spot. The Giants, Packers, Panthers, Rams and Falcons all entered the final week of the season at 7-8. The Falcons lost while the other four teams won, creating a 4-way tie that was won by the Giants based on conference record over St Louis and Carolina and Strength of Victory over Green Bay. The Packers would have earned the 7th seed based on a better conference record than St Louis and Carolina, which would have marked an incredible comeback from a 4-8 record. They would have traveled to New Orleans to face the feel-good story of the season in a resurgent Saints team that bounced back from the Katrina wreckage in 2005 and returned to the Superdome in 2006.


For the third time in 5 years, a 10-win team missed the playoffs. This time it was the 10-6 Cleveland Browns. Entering Week 17 the Steelers already had the division crown locked up after beating the Rams in Week 16 and rested most of their starters, which enabled the Browns to finish tied for first place in the North with 10 wins. The two teams appeared to be going in opposite directions as the Steelers had dropped 3 of their last 4 while the Browns had won 3 of 4, but the Browns are the Browns after all. The Steelers had swept the head-to-head and the Browns were eliminated from the playoffs when the Titans beat the Colts in the Sunday Night game thanks to three Rod Bironas field goals in the second half with the Colts starters resting. The win propelled the Titans into the playoffs and sent the Browns home. With an extra team in the bracket, the Browns would have faced the Colts and Peyton Manning in the opening round.

In the NFC, Washington and Minnesota entered Week 17 with 8-7 records. The Vikings mounted a furious comeback attempt against Denver, scoring 16 points in the last 5:18 of the fourth quarter (including two two point conversions!) to tie the game and force overtime. The Vikings got the ball first in overtime, but a Tavaris Jackson fumble gave the ball back to the Broncos and enabled them to kick the game-winning field goal and eliminate Minnesota. The Redskins beat the Cowboys later, capping an emotional close to the season where the won 4 straight games in the wake of Sean Taylor's death and reached the playoffs. One of those four victories was a win over Minnesota, so even if the two had ended the season tied the Redskins would have reached the playoffs. This marked the third time in 5 years that the Vikings finished 7th in the conference standings and they would have faced the Packers (who had beaten them twice that season) in the first round.


Seven teams in the playoffs would have been a nightmare scenario for Steelers fans in 2008. The New England Patriots, on the back of Matt Cassel who was filling in for the injured Brady, finished with an 11-5 record but missed the playoffs because of their conference record. The Patriots lost the tiebreaker to the Dolphins for the division title and the tiebreaker to the Ravens for the 6th seed because of their conference record. With 7 teams, this would have sent the Patriots to Pittsburgh in the opening round, a scenario no one in Steeler Nation wants to see, regardless of who their quarterback was. As it happened, the Steelers had the #2 seed and the 6th seeded Ravens beat up on the Dolphins and Titans to set up one of the best AFC Championship Games in history. This was also the first year that discussion about reseeding started to enter the conversation as both Wild Card teams (the 12-4 Colts and the 11-5 Ravens) had better records than the AFC West Champ, the 8-8 Chargers. The Colts lost to San Diego in the Wild Card round when Darren Sproles went nuts and had 105 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime.

In the NFC, the Eagles mid-season tie against the Bengals (made famous by Donovan McNabb's press conference where he revealed he didn't know that games could end in a tie)
The Eagles won 3 of their last 4, including a Week 17 thrashing of the Cowboys in a casket match that propelled the winner into the playoffs. The 7th seed would have gone to Tampa Bay, whose 0-4 finish to the season paved the way for the winner of the Cowboys-Eagles game to reach the playoffs. With an extra spot available, the Bucs would have faced the NFC South Champion Panthers. The 0-4 finish by the Bucs prompted the firing of John Gruden, the second fired coach who would have made the playoffs if an extra wild card spot was available.


The 2009 season saw another wild Week 17 in the AFC with the Jets, Ravens, Texans, Steelers and Broncos all entering with 8-7 records and with two wild card spots available. The Steelers beat the Dolphins. The Texans stormed back from 14 points down against New England's reserves in the 4th quarter, scoring 21 points in the final 10 minutes to also get to 9-7. The Steelers playoff hopes were dashed later in the afternoon when Willis McGahee ran for 167 yards and 3 touchdowns to lead the Ravens over the Raiders and into the playoffs. On Sunday Night, the Texans were also eliminated when the Jets and rookie Mark Sanchez crushed the Bengals to put the Jets into the playoffs. If there was an extra spot available, the Texans would have earned the first playoff berth in franchise history based on the Common Games tiebreaker over the Steelers. Houston would have gone to San Diego in the first round on a hot streak after winning their last 4 games.

While the AFC playoff hunt was wild, the NFC chase was significantly less exciting. For the first time since the NFL went to 8 divisions, the 7th place team missed the playoffs by more than 1 game. The Falcons finished a respectable 9-7, but two games behind the 6th-seeded Eagles. The Falcons also finished a game ahead of Carolina and San Francsico (a lead they held over the last 3 weeks of the season) so the excitement would have been minimal in the NFC. The Falcons would have gone to Minnesota to face Brett Favre, making this the second time a Favre-led team would have had to play an opening round game (2007 Packers) rather than getting a bye as the #2 seed.


Much like the 2009 NFC playoff race, the 2010 AFC race was a bit of a dud. The Chargers won 3 of their last 4 games but still finished two games behind the 11-5 Jets for the #6 seed. San Diego edged the 8-8 Jaguars and Raiders for the 7th spot by one game and would have traveled to Pittsburgh in the opening round. Steelers fans should be thankful the extra team wasn't in place this season as the less we see of Philip Rivers, the better.

On the other hand, the NFC provided a thrilling chase in 2010. The Packers topped the Giants in Week 16 and the Bears in Week 17 to earn the last playoff spot which propelled them on a run to the Super Bowl (over the Steelers). The Packers won a 3-way tie with the Giants and Buccaneers for the last wild card spot based on Strength of Victory. The Giants would have edged the Bucs for the 7th spot and taken on the Bears in the first round. The 2010 playoff chase was also notable for the NFC West race, which was won by the Seahawks at 7-9, the first team with a losing record to reach the postseason. The Seahawks edged the Rams in a Sunday Night Casket Match to win the division. The topic of reseeding was brought up again this year as it seemed "unfair" to many that the 11-5 Saints had to travel to Seattle in the opening round of the playoffs. You know what was unfair? This:


The 2011 season saw the Titans surge to the finish, winning 4 of their last 6 games and tie the Bengals (who went 3-5 in the second half) for the 6th spot. However, a midseason victory by the Bengals over the Titans (their only win in 2011 against a team with a winning record) was enough to give the Bengals the edge for the last playoff spot. With an extra team in the playoffs, Week 17 would have been even more exciting as Tennessee, Denver, Oakland and the Jets all entered at 8-7 with San Diego lurking at 7-8. The Chargers beat the Raiders, which gave Denver and Tim Tebow the division title and sent Pittsburgh to the Mile High city in the opening round of the playoffs. Tennessee played a thrilling game against Houston's backups and needed a defensive stop on a 2-point conversion with 14 seconds left to top the Texans. Elsewhere, the Dolphins scored 13 fourth quarter points and took advantage of 3 Mark Sanchez interceptions to knock the Jets from the playoff race. With another team in the postseason, this would have given Tennessee a 1-game edge over the Raiders, Jets and Chargers and sent them to Baltimore (who they beat early in the season) in the opening round. The 8-8 Broncos division title also sparked conversation about re-seeding as they hosted (and beat) the 12-4 Steelers. This was the third time the "re-seeding" conversation was part of the playoff dialogue and all 3 times the home team won the game.

The NFC race was significantly less exciting in reality as everything except the NFC East Champion was locked in stone for a few weeks before the end of the season. The Giants toppled the Cowboys in a Sunday Night Casket Match, cementing Romo's reputation as a late-season choker and sending the Giants on a run that resulted in a Lombardi Trophy. Both NFC Wild Card teams finished at 10-6, two games better than the Bears, Cardinals (who rebounded from a 1-6 start), Eagles and Cowboys.The Bears would have been the beneficiaries of an extra Wild Card, despite losing 5 in a row to fall from 7-3 to 7-8 before winning the season finale. The Cowboys would have been eliminated from the 4-way tie based on head-to-head against the Eagles and the Eagles would have been eliminated due to head-to-head losses to both the Cardinals and Bears. The Bears finally would have topped the Cardinals based on Common Games and gone to San Francisco in the opening round of the playoffs.


The 2012 season saw the Steelers blow a 6-3 start and lose 5 of 6 between mid-November and Christmas to eliminate themselves from playoff contention. An Overtime loss to Dallas in Week 15 and a final second field goal by the Bengals in Week 16 (both of which were set up by Ben Roethlisberger interceptions) knocked the Steelers out. The Steelers did win a meaningless Week 17 game against the Browns to finish at 8-8, which would have been good enough for the 7th seed in the AFC. The Steelers would have edged the 7-9 Dolphins and Chargers for the last playoff spot, which would have sent them to New England and Tom Brady's House of Nightmares in the opening round of the playoffs.

2012 was more of the same for the Chicago Bears. They ran out to a 7-1 start but lost 5 of their next 6 before rebounding at the end of the season. In an exciting Week 17, the Bears held on to beat the Lions but Adrian Peterson ran wild on the Packers, lifting the Vikings to an improbable playoff berth and sending the Bears home for the second straight year. The Bears finished a game better than the Giants and would have earned the 7th seed which would have sent them (once again) to San Francisco. This second-straight mid-season collapse prompted the Bears to fire Lovie Smith. You have to wonder if there were 7 playoff spots and the Bears had reached the postseason both of these years if Lovie would still have a job in Chicago. Lovie was the third coaching casualty suffered by a 7th place team since 2002 when the NFL went to 8 divisions.


As we well know, 2013 provided another exciting conclusion to the AFC playoff race with the Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers entering Week 17 at 8-7 and the Steelers and Jets at 7-8. Things seemed all set up for a 5-way tie that would have sent the Steelers to the playoffs as the #6 seed at 8-8, but officiating errors and Ryan Succop's foot in the Kansas City-San Diego game prevented that from happening. The Steelers would have been only the 3rd team in 12 years to earn a Wild Card with just 8 wins. As it happened, the Chargers won and finished the season at 9-7. The Steelers would have been the beneficiaries of a 7th playoff spot once again and would have, for the second year in a row, had to travel to New England in the opening round of the playoffs. Week 17 would have actually lost a little of its luster as the Steelers would have had a playoff spot secured (whether it would have been the 6th or 7th seed) after the results of the 1pm games and would not have needed a San Diego loss to send them to the postseason.

The NFC standings brought up the "re-seeding" discussion for the 4th time in 12 years as the NFC North Champion Packers (8-7-1) finished with a worse record than both Wild Card teams (and the 7th place Cardinals). The Packers became the first of the four home teams to lose when the 49ers toppled them last weekend. The Cardinals missed out on the playoffs by a game and finished two games ahead of the 8th place Bears. There was some excitement in the last week of the season for the NFC as both the NFC East (Eagles-Cowboys) and NFC North (Packers-Bears) came down to Casket Matches. The Cardinals had an outside chance to make the playoffs in Week 17 if they had beaten the 49ers and the Saints had lost to Tampa Bay, but neither happened. If the Cardinals had been the 7th seed, they would have traveled to Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series where I examine some of the data on the impact of the NFL's proposed playoff expansion.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Steelers Free Agency Outlook

The Steelers enter the 2014 offseason in a bit of an upheval. Most of the offense is locked into their roster spots heading into next season, but a number of significant contributors on the defensive side of the ball (including 4 starters from this past season) are set to be Unrestricted Free Agents. Compounding the problems the Steelers will face this offseason is their current salary cap situation, which projects them as $10 million over the 2014 cap. Releasing Levi Brown will save about $6 million off of that figure, but if the team wishes to make any significant signings in Free Agency, they will need to get well under the cap and into a position where they can add salary. There has been a lot of talk about letting LaMarr Woodley go in order to sign Jason Worlids. This would be incredibly difficult given the dead money involved in Woodley's contract. In 2014, his cap hit is $13.59 million and the dead money against the cap if we cut him would be $14.17 million so we'd actually be in a worse cap position if we straight out cut him before June 1, 2014. What the Steelers could do is what we did with Willie Colon, which would be to designate him as a June 1 cut, which means that only the current year's bonus money counts against the cap and the rest of the dead money is put on the next year's cap. This would mean Woodley only counts $5.59 million in dead money in 2014 but a staggering $8.58 million in dead money against the cap in 2015. That is a bad position to put ourselves in for 2015. Willie Colon is counting for $4.33 million in dead money against us in 2014, which has hamstrung the Steelers in terms of trying to get under the cap. Now, imagine that doubled in 2015 in an offseason when we'll have to re-sign Heath Miller, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward, Marcus Gilbert, and Cortez Allen.

One of the best ways to hedge against the Salary Cap is to sign players to veteran minimum contracts. Due to a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, veteran minimum contracts only count 52% against the Salary Cap. Therefore, a team can sign a veteran to a minimum contract of $810,000 and only $425,000 would count against the Salary Cap.

Here's a look at the players that are set to be Free Agents in 2014 and a glimpse at what players of similar ages and statistics have garnered in the free agent market.

Running Backs

Recent Free Agent Market:
The market for non-starting RBs has been slim in the last few seasons. Most reserve RBs were signed to 1-year deals worth less than $1 million. Those that got contracts worth more than $1 million per season were expected to be kick returners for their teams.

  • Leon Washington (30 years old) 1 year/$1.3 million from New England
  • Darius Reynaud (29 years old) 1 year/$1.02 million from Tennessee
  • Justin Forsett (28 years old) 2 years/$2 million from Jacksonville
  • Chris Ogbonnaya (26 years old) 2 years/$1.4 million from Cleveland
Jonathan Dwyer
Position: RB
Age: 24

2013: 49 att, 197 yards, mostly became the Steelers short-yardage back after being cut in the preseason and re-signed when Isaac Redman sucked.

Dwyer's work ethic drastically improved after he was released and then re-sign by the Steelers. He will be the youngest back on the market in 2014 but his career numbers aren't eye-popping. If the Steelers want him back, they should be able to re-sign him to an inexpensive contract. Dwyer blossomed into an emotional leader of the RBs over the second half of the season, moving ahead of Felix Jones on the depth chart.

Prediction: Simply put, the market for short-yardage situational backs isn't there. Dwyer's age may enable him to cash in on a deal similar to the one Juston Forsett got in Jacksonville, but no one is going to sign him to be their #1 back. Considering Rashard Mendenhall only got a 1-year/$2.5 million contract in free agency last year, it's unlikely Dwyer gets more than $1 million per year.

Felix Jones
Position: RB
Age: 26

2013: 48 att, 184 yards, averaged 22.2 yards on kick returns. After being acquired via trade in the preseason, never broke out or flashed the game-breaking speed he was known for in Dallas. Saw carries significantly decline over the second half of the season.

He was brought in to be a change-of-pace in the Steelers backfield, but never flashed the speed he had in Dallas. Over the first half of the season got 5+ carries in 4 games and had at least 1 reception in 6 games, but only had 5 carries in a game once in the second half and only caught 1 pass.

Prediction: It was a disappointing season for Jones and the free agent market is not kind to running backs. It's hard to see the player who was the #3 option in the Steelers backfield getting any significant offers. The norm for backup RBs seems to be 1-year contracts between $700K and $1 million. Jones was playing on a 1-year/$780K contract this season and it's doubtful he commands any more than that next season.

LaRod Stephens-Howling
Position: RB
Age: 26

2013: Spent the season on injured reserve after tearing his ACL against the Titans in the season opener.

Oh, what could have been. LSH had the potential to be one of the best under-the-radar signings of the 2013 free agency period, but he suffered a torn ACL in the first game of the year. It's hard to say if the Steelers will want him back in 2014 given the significant injury he is returning from.

Prediction: LSH has been a free agent each of the last two seasons. In 2012 he cashed in with Arizona on a 1-year/$1.9 million deal then signed for a minimum contract (1 year/$780K) with the Steelers last season. Given that he is coming off an ACL injury, he won't be signed for more than a 1-year, minimum contract in 2014.

Wide Receiver

Recent Free Agent Market:


  • Mike Wallace (26 years old) was given a 5-year/$60 million deal from the Dolphins. All the LOLs.
  • Danny Amendola (27 years old) signed a 5-year/$28.5 million deal with the Patriots after 4 injury-plagued seasons with the Rams. Amendola never surpassed 700 receiving yards and only had 7 career TDs at the time of his deal.
  • Brandon Gibson (25 years old) signed for 3 years/$9.8 million with the Dolphins after a 51/691/5 season with the Rams.
  • Donnie Avery (28 years old) signed for 3 years/$8.5 million with the Chiefs after a 60/781/3 season with the Colts.


  • Vincent Jackson signed a 5-year/$55.5 million deal with Tampa Bay, though Jackson was already an established #1 receiver.
  • Pierre Garcon signed a 5-year/$42.4 million deal with the Redskins. Garcon had been the #2 option on the Colts behind Reggie Wayne and broke out with RGIII in Washington as the Redskins primary target.
  • Two hilarious deals in retrospect: Laurent Robinson (26 years old) getting 5 years/$32.5 million from the Jaguars and Robert Meachem (28 years old) getting 4 years/$25.9 million from the Chargers. Both were cut after 1 season.
Plaxico Burress
Position: WR
Age: 36

2013: Spent the entire season on injured reserve after suffering a shoulder injury in training camp.

Burress' injury situation will determine his future. It is almost impossible to see him getting more than a 1-year deal from any team at a veteran minimum salary.

Prediction: Retires

Jerricho Cotchery
Position: WR
Age: 31

2013: 46 rec, 602 yards, 10 TDs

Cotchery emerged as a red zone threat, leading the team with 10 touchdowns in 2013. He proved that he can still get open and still make plays in the league. The receivers market is a young man's game, but Cotchery brought a lot of value to the Steelers and should be one of their top priorities to help stabalize the receiving corps if the team is unable to re-sign Emmanuel Sanders.

Prediction: Should be able to get a similar contract (2 years/$3 million) to his last one, either with the Steelers or on the open market. Recievers over 30 don't tend to cash in on big deals, but the way he played last season made him one of the best bargains in the league.

Emmanuel Sanders
Position: WR
Age: 26

2013: 67 rec, 740 yards, 6 TDs, averaged 26.8 yards on 10 kick returns, several significant drops
Career: 161 rec, 2030 yards, 11 TDs

Sanders has battled injuries throughout his career, but can be a playmaker when he gets the ball in his hands. Dropped balls didn't stop Mike Wallace from cashing in on a big contract, but Sanders is not the downfield threat that Wallace is/was. 2013 was the best year of Sanders' career as he posted a career high in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.

Prediction: Given the deal that Amendola got from the Patriots last year, Sanders could get a contract from a WR-needy team in a similar viscinity. I'm not sure if he is worth a 5-year deal, which seems to be the norm for #1 receivers. Sanders has similar career numbers to Gibson and Avery when they signed their deals in 2013. I'd expect Sanders to get a deal of at least 3 years averaging around $4 or $5 million per season, but with limited guaranteed money given his injury history.

Tight End

Recent Free Agent Market:
The market for reserve, blocking tight ends is basically a minimum-contract market. Most of the tight ends cashing in on deals worth over $1 million per season are weapons in the passing game. Neither Johnson or Palmer can be considered much of a threat in the passing game, so neither will be competing for the kind of contracts that Jimmy Graham, Jermichael Finley or Dennis Pitta will land.

David Johnson
Position: TE
Age: 26

2013: Johnson ended the year on injrued reserve for the second consecutive season.

The Steelers seem to love Johnson, and Tight End is arguably the thinnest spot on the offensive side of the ball. I would expect the Steelers to keep Johnson around through the spring to see how his recovery from a wrist injury progresses. Ultimately, I wouldn't be surprised if the Steelers drafted a tight end in the late rounds who ultimately replaced Johnson on the roster.

Prediction: Given his injury recovery, I'd expect the Steelers to keep him on speed dial and maybe give him a training camp invite, but he'll probably go unsigned over the summer.

Michael Palmer
Position: TE
Age: 25

2013: Impressed in the preseason with his blocking and special teams abilities but saw limited time on offense the regular season.

Despite dressing for all 16 games, Palmer was basically a special teams-only player. He finished the year with 1 catch for 8 yards. The Steelers don't have much quality depth at tight end, so I'd expect them to offer him to a minimum contract and give him a chance to make the team again. Palmer has been a bit of a journeyman, so I wouldn't be surprised if he decides to take his talents elsewhere.

Prediction: He will play in the NFL in 2014, but probably not with the Steelers.

Offensive Linemen

Recent Free Agent Market:
Reserve offensive linemen are rarely signed to deals worth more than the veteran minimum. That said, the Steelers 3 free agents along the line (Velasco, Wallace, Whimper) all played well during their time on the field in 2013. Offensive line depth is slim around the league and some team in desperate need of a lineman could offer them a deal over the minimum and an opportunity to start. Given the Steelers cap situation none of them will likely get an offer from the Steelers for more than the veteran minimum.

Fernando Velasco
Position: C
Age: 28

2013: Started 11 games at center in replacement of Maurkice Pouncey before ending the season on injured reserve.

Velasco acquited himself well this season in lieu of Pouncey. The Steelers will need to sign at least 1 reserve lineman to carry next season as a back-up center. Both Velasco and Wallace played well and it will be up to the team which to sign and which (if either) player wishes to return.

Prediction: He probably won't get more than a minimum contract as a backup. If a team decides to sign him as their starting center, the market is likely in the $1 to $2 million per year range.

Cody Wallace
Position: C
Age: 29

2013: Started the final four games of the season at center after Velasco was injured.

Wallace put some good stuff on tape, and could work himself into a reserve center role with a team, but it is unlikely that anyone will sign a 29-year-old career backup to be the centerpiece of their O-line. If the Steelers want him back, which wouldn't be the worst decision in the world, they should be able to sign him to a veteran minimum deal.

Prediction: Will sign a 1-year, minimum contract with someone. If I had to pick, I'd rather have Velasco than Wallace, but it depends on if Velasco gets any starting offers.

Guy Whimper
Position: OG/OT
Age: 30

2013:  Went from "Uh-oh" to "Oh Yeah" in a matter of one game playing in relief of Marcus Gilbert. Proved to be a valuable reserve lineman for the Steelers.

When the Steelers first signed him, the first thought everyone had was "Well, we're in trouble if Guy Whimper has to play." Abdullah The Butcher turned around those opinions pretty quickly when he stepped in at tackle for Marcus Gilbert. Whimper is versatile enough to play guard or tackle and is a good swing lineman to have on the roster. He played on a minimum 1-year/$715K contract this past season and I would expect the Steelers to try to bring him back on a similar 1-year, minimum deal to be their swing lineman.

Prediction: Reserve linemen aren't typically signed to anything more than minimum contracts, so it is unlikely that Whimper would get more than that from the Steelers. If another team is desperate enough for a starting lineman that they offer him a deal over $1 million, he would be smart to take it, but he won't get it from us. That said, I would like to have him back as he proved to be a valuable reserve.

Defensive Linemen

Recent Free Agent Market:

  • Desmond Bryant (27 years old) was signed to a 5-year/$34 million deal by the Browns
  • Ricky Jean-Francois (26 years old) inked a 4-year/$22 million deal with the Colts.
  • Glenn Dorsey (27 years old) received a 2-year/$6 million deal from the 49ers after largely disappointing with the Chiefs. He was coming off an injury that ended his 2012 season after 4 games.
Ziggy Hood
Position: DE
Age: 26

2013: Some inconsistent play, lost his starting position to Cam Heyward.

Ziggy has been somewhat of an enigma in his time with the Steelers. His play has been inconsistent and he hasn't been the dominant player you would hope a first rounder would grow into. That said, he has been durable and has actually out-performed the other defensive linemen in his draft class. Ziggy has similar career numbers (46 starts in 80 games, 11.5 sacks, 144 tackles) to Desmond Bryant (18 starts in 62 games, 10.5 sacks, 155 tackles) and better than those of Jean-Francois. Dorsey was coming off an injury so it stands to reason that Ziggy could get a contract in the 4 to 5-year range between $25 and $35 million, depending on the team and their needs. The Steelers certainly couldn't afford that.

Prediction: It's really hard to gauge the market here. He is only 26 and he does have experience as a 4-3 DT (in college) which opens up the available options to him. It'll be interesting to see if he sticks as a 3-4 DE or if a 4-3 team gives him a shot as a DT.

Brett Keisel
Position: DE
Age: 35

2013: Battled through injuries and closed the season strong.

Keisel has had a great career as a Steeler. You really couldn't ask for much more out of a 7th round pick.

Prediction: Retires

Al Woods
Position: DL
Age: 26

2013: Played the game of his life against the Bengals. Was largely invisible the rest of the year.

Woods was a swing lineman playing both nose tackle behind McLendon and defensive end in the rotation. He didn't really jump out at you, but he wasn't terrible either.

Prediction: For a player the Steelers scooped up on waivers a few years ago, he has played well but it's difficult to see him commanding any more than a minimum contract on the open market.


Recent Free Agent Market:


  • 26-year-old Paul Kruger got 5 years/$41 million from Cleveland after posting 9 sacks and 42 tackles for the Super Bowl Champion Ravens in 2012. 
  • Connor Barwin (26 years old) got 6 years/$36 million from the Eagles after a 3-sack season in 2012 where the Texans moved to a 4-3. However, Barwin had 11.5 in 2011 and had 19 career sacks up to that point. 
  • Journeyman Eric Walden (27 years old), who had spent two and a half seasons starting opposite Clay Matthews in Green Bay and had just 8 sacks to tell for it, cashed in a 4 year/$16 million deal from the Colts.


  • Mario Williams (26 years old) signed a 6 year/$96 million deal with the Bills after posting 8.5+ sacks in 4 straight seasons as a 4-3 DE. The Texans had moved to a 3-4 in 2011 and Williams recorded 5 sacks in 5 games before being injured. The Bills also signed Mark Anderson (28 years old) to a 4 year/$27.5 million contract after he had 10 sacks the prior year for the Patriots. Anderson and Williams were supposed to be the Bills bookends, though Anderson has largely disappointed while Williams excelled in the Bills 4-3 front this season.
  • Kamerion Wimbley (28 years old) signed for 5 years/$35 million with the Titans after starting all but 2 games in his 6 NFL seasons as a 3-4 OLB for the Browns and Raiders. Wimbley had 42.5 sacks in his first 6 seasons. 
  • Jarret Johnson (30 years old) got 4 years/$19 million from the Chargers after posting 20 sacks (never more than 6 in a season) over 7 years with the Ravens.

Jason Worilds
Position: OLB
Age: 25

2013: Started 11 games, 8 sacks, 2 Forced Fumbles, 56 tackles
Career: 21 starts, 18 sacks, 3 FF, 121 tackles

Worilds emerged as a pass-rushing force once he moved to the left side and took LaMarr Woodley's place. He tallied 7 sacks and 42 tackles over his last 8 games. 2013 was clearly the best year of his career and the former second-round pick now finds himself in Keenan Lewis territory. Complicating matters is the Steelers depth at the position with LaMarr Woodley signed to a huge deal through 2017 and last year's first round pick Jarvis Jones on the roster. Young pass rushers are a hot commodity on the open market and the Steelers probably won't be able to match an offer that Worilds would get in free agency.

Prediction: The market for young pass rushers is astronomical. Williams was a former #1 overall pick and a 4-3 DE as opposed to a 3-4 OLB. The important numbers to consider are what Kruger, Baldwin and Johnson (3-4 OLBs) got. The market for Worilds will probably be in the $6-$8 million per year range. I have serious doubts that the Steelers can afford that given their current salary cap situation. The 3-4 teams with the most 2014 cap space are Indianapolis, Washington, the Jets and Cleveland.

Stevenson Sylvester
Position: LB
Age: 25

2013: After being cut by the Steelers in training camp, was re-signed mid-season. Played most of the season on Special Teams and saw time at both inside and outside linebacker the last two weeks.

The fact that no other team expressed interest in Sylvester during the time he was a free agent says a lot. He wasn't terrible after his return but he isn't more than a backup at this point.

Prediction: Won't be re-signed unless there are injuries heading into training camp.

Jamaal Westerman
Position: LB
Age: 28

2013: Journeyman that was brought in when LaMarr Woodley was put on IR.

He barely played after being signed. It's unlikely he'll return in 2014.

Prediction: Not re-signed.


Recent Free Agent Market:
The market for 30+ safeties is relatively thin. Most of them get veteran minimum deals, irregardless of their level of production. Yeremiah Bell has been incredibly productive since leaving Miami but has been playing on 1-year veteran minimum deals because of his age.

  • Ed Reed (34 years old) 3 years/$15 million from Houston. This deal was more based on his name than his actual recent productivity. Reed was cut mid-season by the Texans and finished the year with the Jets.
  • Adrian Wilson (33 years old) 3 years/$5 million from New England.

Will Allen
Position: S
Age: 31

2013: Signed in Free Agency to a veteran minimum deal by the Cowboys. Cut by Dallas mid-season and signed with the Steelers. Played deep safety in the dime defense.

Allen provided stability and a spark to the secondary when he was brought back to the team after a brief departure to Dallas. He played well enough in his time here that he deserves to be brought back, but the Steelers probably won't offer him much more than a veteran minimum deal. Without Allen, the Steelers depth at safety would be down to Troy, Shamarko, Robert Golden and Damon Cromartie-Smith. Allen would provide a veteran presence with a minimal cap hit that could compete with Shamarko for the starting job in camp.

Prediction: Signed to a veteran minimum deal, probably mid-summer after the draft. May or may not be with the Steelers.

Ryan Clark
Position: S
Age: 34

2013: Talked a bigger game than he played. Had 2 interceptions and missed a ton of tackles.

Why did the Steelers give up so many big plays? Ryan Clark's inability to tackle certainly had something to do with it. Clark had some very good seasons for the Steelers but ultimately talked a bigger game than he played.

Prediction: If he finds work, it won't be with the Steelers. More likely it will be with ESPN.


Recent Free Agent Market:
The only punters to get contracts above the veteran minimum are those that have Pro Bowls on their resume. Long snappers are minimum salary players.

Mat McBriar
Position: P
Age: 34

2013: Averaged 41.3 yards per punt over the last 9 games after being brought in to replace Zoltan Mesko. Threw a pass to David Paulsen against the Packers.

Statistically he was actually worse than Mesko, if that's possible. He won't be back unless the Steelers want a veteran punter in camp.

Prediction: The Steelers will have a training camp competition for the punter's job.

Greg Warren
Position: LS
Age: 32

2013: Long snapped like a boss, yet again.

Warren has played all 8 seasons of his career with the Steelers and is one of just 7 players on the roster that played in Super Bowl XL. Long snappers get veteran minimum contracts, which should keep Warren on the roster for another year.

Prediction: Re-signed at the veteran minimum on a 1-year deal.