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.

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