The Steelers defense needs a makeover. An extreme makeover.
The front office made attempts to insulate itself against getting old, only to see some injuries and free agency wreck those plans. Long gone are staples like Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton, with the team still trying to fill those voids. Other hanger-ons, such as Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, will likely be jettisoned in favor of moving forward to younger talents.
Many fans are in a panic, saying the team needs to improve and now. But, there are only two ways to do so: free agency and the draft.
Since the Steelers had to free up money to get a big deal done for Big Ben, there isn't much of a splash to be made in the open market for viable starters. The draft also holds it's own questions as to whether any selected rookie will make an immediate impact. In fact, they may make a negative impact while learning the ropes in the NFL.
But what if I told you that the solutions are already on the roster? Call me crazy, but I have some bold predictions to make.
I'm not sweating the defensive line. The bookends, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are in place to be the next wave of great players to man those spots. Steve McLendon may not have hit his stride. He may not hit it at all, but for the time-being, he's more than effective. Big Daniel McCullers showed spurts of being that guy who eats up blockers, a la Hampton. And even Cam Thomas, who I'm not fond of, had his weaknesses hidden by using him in sub packages where he was more effective.
Next are the linebackers, where the team has both feast and famine. Inside linebacker is the feast, where 2 1st round picks (Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier) are poised to start. Sean Spence was originally drafted to be a starter, and Vince Williams was thrust into service due to injuries to others. The group is a seasoned one, and thus, some of these players could move to other positions on the field due to their depth.
The outside linebacker group is an unproven one. Jarvis Jones has been injured for most of his first 2 seasons in the league. Arthur Moats was resigned before the free agency period began and should see a fair amount of playing time. James Harrison, who came out of retirement to fill in for the injured Jones last season, remains unsigned. He will probably be another "break glass in emergency" scenario like last year. I don't envision the team making a decision on Deebo until after the draft and perhaps a portion of the way into training camp and the preseason.
However, there are prospects in line to fill in the holes. 2014 6th round pick Jordan Zumwalt can play both inside and outside positions. Because the team held onto Zumwalt, who was on the IR, for all of last season, suggests they are committed to seeing if he can "go."
The Steelers also signed CFL standout Shawn Lemon, who won the Grey Cup with Calgary last year. Lemon is a DE, but undersized by NFL standards and will likely convert to OLB in Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme. The same concept could be held for Ryan Shazier, due to his college playing experience, but the thought is he is outmatched by larger, opposing linemen.
Then there's always the probability the team will select another LB high in the draft. Another 1st round selection would give the team 3 LBs selected with their 1st pick in the last 3 years, and potentially a starting lineup manned by all first round selections (with Jones, Shazier and Timmons.)
However, many feel that pick may go toward the secondary, which took a blow by losing Brice McCain. Right now, the Steelers have William Gay and Cortez Allen under contract, with Antwon Blake tendered as a restricted free agent. Gay started 2014 as the nickel corner, but quickly became the team's #1. Cortez Allen has all of the tools, but took a shot to his confidence last season and was benched. He will get another shot, and rightfully so, as he appeared to be in position to make the plays he didn't. Allen's contract also suggests a "make or break" year for him. Blake is an excellent special teams player, but an undersized corner who is best suited to nickel and dime packages. Ike Taylor, a free agent, is all but gone.
This leaves the opening for a draft selection or a free agent signing. Considering the bargain deal the Steelers found with McCain last season, it reasons they will seek the same again. Drafting a corner may also be in the cards, but the team hasn't taken a #1 at the position since Chad Scott in 1997, or in the 2nd round since Bryant McFadden in 2005. (I already made an argument why the team will pass on one in the first round.)
As for safeties, last year's big free agent signing, Mike Mitchell, struggled getting accustomed to a 2-gap system versus the 1-gap he played in Carolina. It also stands to reason he played "center fielder" more often, due to Troy Polamalu crowding the line of scrimmage. With Polamalu unlikely to return, we could see Mitchell take over Troy's old role in blitz schemes. As for replacing Troy, Shamarko Thomas was drafted 2 seasons ago to be his successor, but is unproven and has struggled with injuries. Journeyman backup Will Allen is a 32-year-old free agent.
So what could the team do to fill in those gaps?
For starters, the depth at ILB could help spread that wealth around the field. Many speculated Ryan Shazier has the same physical tools as, and could be a Troy Polamalu clone. Could Shazier move to Troy's spot?
Last season Ike Taylor lobbied for a move from corner to safety. Could Taylor return, and make the same transition that previous Steeler great Rod Woodson did in the twilight of his career?
Outside linebacker is still a concern, but we've seen Lawrence Timmons play in that position when called upon in the past. With Timmons and Shazier moving out of the ILB position, it makes room for experienced Sean Spence and Vince Williams to take over.
The radical moves would also give time for prospects and rookies to be groomed to move into those spots, rather than training them with "trial by fire." It sounds crazy, but with a new defensive coordinator who is well acquainted with the players at his disposal, you just never know.