For a team that rarely makes a free-agency splash, the Pittsburgh Steelers got a lot of work done this offseason. They essentially lost six starters with the Martavis Bryant suspension, and save a $20-million deal for tight end Ladarius Green, they are replacing all six with draft picks or players on rookie deals.
Did an already good team get better this offseason?
Let’s look at those six positions to find out if the 2016 roster, pound for pound, improved from 2015.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell gave the Steelers’ offseason a B+ on his AFC North report card. That’s about right. They did what they could to fill needs. When losing Heath Miller and Bryant unexpectedly, those pieces can't be replaced with bargain-level free agents.
It’s a process.
TIGHT END: Heath Miller out, Ladarius Green/Jesse James in
Better or worse?: Better. Heath Miller’s all-around game is a big loss, but after 11 seasons, he’s leaving at the right time. The combo of Green and James should provide more of a spark than Miller would have in year 12. The Steelers can mix and match skill sets, as James is an inline option and Green a vertical threat, which Pittsburgh has needed from this position for a while.
WIDE RECEIVER: Martavis Bryant out, Sammie Coates in
Better or worse?: Worse. That’s not a knock on Coates, whom the Steelers believe can make a sizable year 2 jump. But Bryant was a rare athletic creature. The Steelers will miss his ability to stretch the field. This is about Markus Wheaton more than Coates. If Wheaton turns his high-level speed into consistent gains, the Steelers will have something. And watch for Eli Rogers as a sleeper out of the slot.
Better or worse?: Worse, at least right now, though maybe not in six months. In Beachum, the Steelers walked away from an above-average tackle who commanded a modest price from Jacksonville (one years, $4.5 million with a four-year option worth $35.5 million). Villanueva must fill that gap. He showed progress late last year but is still a bit unrefined. That's where offensive line coach Mike Munchak enters the picture. Let’s talk in Week 8 on this one. Harris has started much of his career and will compete for the job.
Better or worse?: Better. Boykin made some plays in late-season action, and Blake wasn’t as bad as the fans believed (though he wasn’t’ exactly steady, either). But corner was clearly a problem area, and a pair of high-round picks should upgrade the secondary based on the Steelers’ draft precedent. Burns (first round this year) and Golson (second round in 2015) will have chances early and often to make an impact.
Better or worse?: Better. In time, Davis will inject much-needed range into this position. Allen filled in admirably last year but was clearly a fill-in until Pittsburgh could find a long-term solution. The Steelers hope Davis is that. Pittsburgh also re-signed Robert Golden, a necessary move for a valuable subpackage safety who can take pressure off Davis early on.
Better or worse?: Neither. The Steelers offered McLendon, now a New York Jet, a multi-year extension despite minimal cap space. He was a reliable nose tackle, and though Hargrave sounds exciting, there’s no guarantee he’s ready right away. McCullers was simply uninspiring in training camp and spot duty last year despite his impressive strength. He needs to take ownership of the position instead of leasing month to month. This is a classic TBD position, but the Steelers can afford to be experimental at a spot they use only about 30 percent of the time because of the pass-heavy personnel.
FINAL CALL: Very close call, but if at least a handful of young players pan out, this roster is better than last year. Barely.