Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…..The biggest weakness on the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into next season is the lack of a dominant edge rusher. It’s like a bad joke being told over an over again. In fact, the last player to have double digit sacks in a season occurred way back in 2010 when both James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley had 10 sacks each. Whether it’s through the draft or free agency, Pittsburgh will once again look to fill this gaping hole in their defense.
An early look at the salary cap numbers shows the Steelers are in the best cap shape they have been in for quite some time. Gaining exact cap numbers can be nearly impossible without actually being an NFL executive, but here are some rough numbers to go by. The salary cap is expected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $168 million. The Steelers have around 137 million in salaries committed to next season. That comes out to over 30 million in cap space heading into the offseason. Sounds great, but don’t start spending on free agents just yet. Resigning Le’Veon Bell will take a large chunk of that. If Pittsburgh chooses to use the franchise tag on him, that will run in the 12.5 million range. Signing Bell to a long term deal would lower that number by a million or so. Stephon Tuitt needs a new deal also, as he is about to enter his final year of his rookie contract. The good news is Antonio Brown’s pending contract restructure shouldn’t cost much more then he is already on the books for. His signing bonus stretched over a long term deal can minimize the hit to the cap in 2017. Take all this and the various other things like restricted free agents and draft picks, and you could conceivably have a good chunk of money to spend on a free agent edge rusher. That is if they choose not to resign players like Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, and Landry Jones. Seems like a small price to pay in order to get a premium pass rusher on this team.
The free agent edge rusher class is not a very deep one at all. Melvin Ingram should be number one on the Steelers’ list, along with every other team looking for a pass rusher. He is a former first round pick of the Chargers, and would be a perfect fit in the Steelers 3-4 defense. Ingram stands 6-1 and 265lbs, and is still only 27 years old. He is the top edge rusher in free agency, and will likely demand a high price in the open market. Another option could be Cardinals free agent Chandler Jones. A personal favorite of mine, and a player Pittsburgh missed the boat on when New England was shopping him last offseason. Jones is coming off a terrific season in which he had 11 sacks and four forced fumbles. He was second only to Von Miller in quarterback pressures with 43. There are some things to be concerned about with Jones when it comes to his off field issues that have plagued him in the past. After those two the group gets very, very thin. Pittsburgh could try to squeeze another good year out of veterans like Demarcus Ware or Julius Peppers. They could take a flyer on one year wonder Lorenzo Alexander from Buffalo. His 12.5 sacks from 2016 are far and away his best total, considering he had never gotten more then 3 previously. After Alexander, the list gets ugly fast with retreads like Trent Cole, Paul Kruger, and Barkevious Mingo. At that point, the Steelers would be better off resigning James Harrison and Jarvis Jones, then praying for a miracle at pick number 30 in the draft.
It’s not in the Rooney’s nature to go out and break the bank on a free agent. They much prefer building through the draft, and resigning their own free agents. It’s a philosophy that has done very well for them over the years, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon. If there were ever a year to change though, this is it. With the window of Ben Roethlisberger in his prime beginning to close, it’s time to make a bold move. Their inability to draft a high end pass rusher gives us no confidence that it can happen this year. Especially given the fact they are drafting so late in the first round. Kevin Colbert has done a great job carving out some real cap room, let’s hope they use it to fill the black hole that is the 3-4 outside linebacker.