Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Free agency set to start

With the free agent period set to start next Monday, here are some players that could draw the interest of the Steelers in no particular order:

OLB/Edge Rusher
Jabaal Sheard: The former Pitt star has fallen out of favor in all of the coaching changes in Cleveland. But he's 25 and had 21 sacks in his first three seasons before getting just two in limited snaps last season. He's also good against the run.

Trent Cole: Yes, Cole is 32. But the Steelers are coming out of this draft with another edge rusher, possibly in the first round. The Steelers could sign Cole to a one- or two-year deal while that rookie gets up to speed. He's recorded 14.5 sacks over the past two seasons as an 3-4 OLB for the Eagles.

Brandon Graham: Another Eagles player. Now that they've cut Cole, the Eagles could go strong after Graham, who had 5.5 sacks last season serving as Philadelphia's No. 3 OLB.

Karl Klug: I love this guy's motor. He's the reason why I didn't just title this OLBs, because at 6-3, 278, he'd have to be used as a situational pass rusher in the nickel and dime defenses. But he's had 14.5 sacks over four seasons as a backup for the Titans in very limited playing time. He kind of reminds me of a young Brett Keisel without the pure length that Keisel has.

Cornerbacks
Patrick Robinson: A former No. 1 pick in New Orleans, Robinson never lived up to that hype. But a change of scenery could help. He does have nine interceptions, which is what the Steelers want out of their corners. At 5-11, 191, he's also more what they want in size as well.

Perrish Cox: Originally, I was more interested in Cox' teammate Chris Culliver. But it appears he will be highly sought after. Cox is a nice fallback option. At 6-1, 190, he has good size. And he had five interceptions in 2014 working on a one-year deal. Still just 28, he's got some football left in him.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Steelers release Moore, clear more cap space

The Steelers on Monday released veteran receiver Lance Moore, clearing just over $1 million in salary cap space,

The move came on the same day the NFL informed teams that the 2015 salary cap will be $143.28 million, an increase of $10 million from 2014.

The Steelers, under the cap rules, carried some $778,000 in cap space over from 2014 and will have an adjusted cap of $144.058 million.

The release of Moore, who had 14 receptions for 198 yards and two touchdowns in a disappointing 2014 season, leaves the Steelers at around $8.7 million under the cap.

All teams must be in cap compliance by next Monday.

After a strong start in the offseason, Moore got hurt in the preseason and never really clicked with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Then, by midseason, he was pushed aside with the emergence of rookie Martavis Bryant.

@ Some $4.5 million of the Steelers' cap space will be eaten up when the team tenders offers to restricted free agents Robert Golden, Antwon Blake and Will Johnson.

The Steelers could soften that blow by signing one or all of those players to long-term deals, particularly since all figure to be in the team's plans moving forward to some degree.

Golden, a safety, should enter 2015 as the team's primary backup at free safety and was special teams captain in 2014.

Blake acquitted himself well as the nickel safety at times in 2014 and also is a core special teams player.

And Johnson is the team's starting fullback.

@ The Steelers still likely have some housecleaning to do before free agency starts.

They have not yet restructured the deal of center Maurkice Pouncey, but could do so at a cap savings of as much as $3.8 million.

Some veteran players could be released as well. Safety Troy Polamalu would save $3.75 million immediately and $5.6 million if designated as a post-June 1 release.

Defensive ends Cam Thomas ($2 million) and Brett Keisel ($1.5 million) also could be released, though I think the team is leaning toward bringing Keisel back as a backup.

@ ProFootballTalk threw out a story over the weekend that Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell could get a four-game suspension for his DUI and marijuana arrest last August.

That's not happening. It will be two games, at most.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Second wave of free agency is heating up

The second - or actually first - wave of free agency is heating up as teams rid themselves of veterans players with big contracts in order to get themselves in line with what the projected salary cap will be.

Because of that, in the past week, we've seen guys such as A.J. Hawk, Harry Douglas, Steven Jackson, Jacoby Jones and Mathias Kiwanuka cut loose in the past few days.

And the cuts will continue to come.

The good thing about these cuts is that other teams are able to sign these guys immediately instead of waiting until the start of the March 10 free agency period.

They also do not affect compensatory picks the following year since they aren't true free agents.

The bad thing? Often times the players being released are aging veterans who only have a year or two of football left in their bodies.

Still, the Steelers delved into this market last year and came away with Brice McCain and Lance Moore.

There could be an edge rusher or corner who just might interest the team this time around.

I continue to hear that Kansas City might have to part ways with Tamba Hali if the Chiefs have to come through with a big contract for Justin Houston - which they will.

If so, the Steelers would be very, very interested in Hali, even though, at 31, he doesn't fit their typical MO in free agency.

They could plug Hali, into their lineup opposite Jarvis Jones while also grooming his potential replacement, who will come in the draft.

A recent cut who might interest the Steelers is Jacoby Jones.

Mike Tomlin has always liked Jones as a return man and the Steelers, with their top three receiver set, wouldn't be forced to play Jones at a receiver position. He'd be No. 4.

He might also like a shot at playing the Ravens a couple of times per season after being released by the team.

The Steelers have a need for a return man and Jones remains one of the best in the business, even though he had some fumble issues last season. He hasn't been a fumbler throughout the course of his career, so last year could have been an anomaly.

@ Greg Bedard wrote on SI.com how it's amazing that the Steelers are tight against the cap each season.

He then pointed to the recent restructuring of deals of Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Mitchell as bad business.

Not really. The Steelers cleared $9.5 million with those moves and it's actually beneficial to both parties to do so.

In all three cases, the Steelers aren't moving a ton of money into the future. And they're just converting some salary into signing bonus. It's not that big of a deal.

For the players, they get a lump sum of money now instead of having to wait for it.

Bedard points to the team allowing Emmanuel Sanders to leave last year and possibly doing the same with Jason Worilds this year.

But the Steelers weren't going to pay Sanders big money last year - he got $15 million over three years - when they already had big money tied up in Antonio Brown.

Sanders went to Denver and had a good season. Good for him. But he wouldn't have had the same kind of year in Pittsburgh, not with Brown firmly established. The Steelers just don't throw the ball as much as the Broncos.

And despite Brown and Sanders being good friends, there's still a bit of a competition there between the two, who were selected in the same draft. Always has been, always will be.

As for Worilds, I think he's a good player. I think he wants to return to Pittsburgh and they want him to return. And I believe even if he does become a free agent in a couple of weeks, there's still a good shot he'll return to Pittsburgh.

That's what that $9.5 million in cap space that was just cleared up is for, re-signing Worilds or his replacement.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Steelers restructure deals, other tidbits

The Steelers opened up $9.5 million in cap space by restructuring the contracts of Marcus Gilbert, Mike Mitchell and Maurkice Pouncey.

It's interesting timing since they have until Monday to make a decision on whether or not to tag outside linebacker Jason Worilds once again.

It would cost the Steelers around $11 million to tag Worilds for the second consecutive year.

And GM Kevin Colbert sounded as if the Steelers were leaning toward not tagging Worilds again this year.

But Worilds is considered one of the top free agents available this year when the market opens March 10 and the Steelers might want to cover their behinds. They also have only Jarvis Jones under contract of their top four outside linebackers from 2014.

While $11 million is a big chunk of change, it would also again only be a one-year deal. The Steelers seem intent on drafting a young outside linebacker as well, so they could move forward after this year by resigning Worilds to a long-term deal - if Jones doesn't work out - or allow Worilds to leave after 2015 and go with Jones and the other young guy - if Jones is what they think he can be.

@ Another move that would create cap space would be the retirement of Troy Polamalu.

But I heard last week at the NFL combine that Polamalu isn't ready to retire and then this week, Ike Taylor told Joe Starkey Polamalu is training for 2015.

That's bad news for the Steelers, who don't want Polamalu, the player, back. Polamalu, the person, is beyond reproach.

This puts the Steelers in a difficult position.

Polamalu is clearly not what he once was, but if he adjusts his game to play more of a traditional safety, a player with his experience and instincts could be of value.

It just likely won't be in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are ready to turn things over to Shamarko Thomas.

@ The post-combine release of players has started around the league as big-name players such as Mathias Kiwanuka and Tedd Ginn Jr.

Some of these type of players can be valuable but not too costly.

First, they don't count as true free agents, since they were released by their current team. Therefore they don't count against you when the NFL starts figuring out compensatory picks.

Second, you can sign them now instead of waiting for free agency to begin.

Brice McCain and Lance Moore were among the early cuts last year.

The Steelers, however, prefer to sign free agents coming off their first contract - veterans who are still young enough to have some upside - or younger free agents such as McCain.

@ The Steelers expect, by the way, to get a sixth or seventh round compensatory pick this year.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Harrison wants to play

Linebacker James Harrison tweeted Sunday that he's packed and ready to fly to Arizona to begin workouts in preparation for the 2015 season - not that he ever takes any time off.

Harrison would like that to be with the Steelers. But that will be entirely up to the Steelers and if they want him back.

Outside of that, it's likely the only other team Harrison would consider would be Tennessee, where he could again work with Dick LeBeau.

The Steelers likely won't know if they want Harrison to return until they see what happens in free agency.

If they lose Jason Worilds and are unable to acquire a suitable replacement, Harrison could be back. If not, they won't bring Harrison back simply to be a backup.

They need to allow Jarvis Jones to play the spot without Harrison breathing over his shoulder.

@ After the workouts of Vic Beasley and Dante Fowler Sunday, there's no chance the Steelers get a crack at either in the draft.

They'll both be top-10 picks.

Randy Gregory likely also will be gone, but he's too light in the pants for the Steelers, anyway.

The Steelers did meet with Bud Dupree of Kentucky at the combine, and he wasn't able to do a lot of the workout stuff because of an injury. But he did run a 4.56 40 at 269 pounds.

Dupree's production didn't always match that kind of athleticism, but he'll be intriguing.

So too will Eli Harold of Virginia, who worked out Sunday with the defensive linemen, then stayed on for some linebacker drills. He played some linebacker, and it showed Sunday. He was fluid in his drops and change of direction.

He also ran a 4,6 40 at 6-3, 247 pounds.

@ Local product Mike Hull had a solid weekend. He led all linebackers with 31 reps on the bench and looked fluid in the linebacker drills.

Hull's 40 time of 4.68 wasn't as fast as I'm sure he would have liked, but it was better than most and plenty fast enough to play in the NFL.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

More thoughts from the combine

We bugged out of Indianapolis late Friday afternoon to head home and beat the snow back to Pittsburgh. I was going to blog my final thoughts from Indianapolis last night, but pretty much crashed as soon as I got home.

Here are some thoughts I had Friday:

@ Nebraska's Randy Gregory didn't help himself by coming in at 235 pounds. That's especially true when you consider that he's 6-5.

Remember, Plalxico Burress was 6-5, 229 - as a wide receiver.

Gregory almost certainly will have to be a weak side backer, which likely takes him off the Steelers' board. They will be looking for a larger linebacker to possibly replace Jason Worilds since Jarvis Jones has to play the weak side.

@ Vic Beasley, on the other hand, showed up at 246, about 10 pounds heavier than his playing weight last year at Clemson.

Beasley was also a weakside guy in college - like Jones - but unlike Jones, who has struggled to put on any weight since joining the Steelers and is still in that 235-240 range, Beasley showed he can easily bulk up.

And he carried that weight well.

@ My good friend Jim Wexell of SteelCityInsider noted that Washington linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha looks a lot like Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, right down to some of the mannerisms while talking.

Kikaha, at 6-2, 253, is a strong-side guy who could be had in the second or third round - depending on his workouts this weekend.

He was a big sack guy for the Huskies, putting up 19 in 14 games last season and is on the Steelers' radar.

@ Another bigger linebacker on the team's radar is Kentucky's Bud Dupree, who weighed in at an almost-too-heavy 269 pounds. He's 6-3, so he can afford to carry a little extra weight, but the Steelers, who met with Dupree, would likely ask him to scale it back - at least a little.

@ I heard some rumblings that there are some who think Trae Waynes of Michigan State, who weighed in at 6-0, 186 on Saturday, will run in the 4.3 to 4.4 range. If that happens, he'll go before the Steelers pick at 22.

That would leave the Steelers looking at a guy such as Marcus Peters, who was thrown off the team at Washington for arguing with his coaches. Peters will very much be under the microscope this weekend.

He can play, but if he's such a pain in the behind that his college coaches didn't want to deal with him, he must really be a MAJOR problem.

@ Beyond those two guys, there might not be a corner worthy of being the 22nd pick.

The real value at cornerback this year is in the second and third rounds.

I like Stanford's Alex Carter, who fits the Steelers' MO as a true junior who happened to play at a major college, but if he tests well this weekend, he might not slip to their spot in the second round.

But there are a number of other guys who will be available in that range.

@ Forget about speed being an issue for West Virginia receiver Kevin White. At 6-3, 215 pounds, he ran a 4.35 40.

That's lighting fast for a guy of that size.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

As a member of the Pro Football Writers of America, part of my duties this week included signing up to transcribe an interview or two of some of the players who are available to the media at the NFL Draft Combine.

Knowing that the Steelers will be in the market for a running back to serve as a backup to Le'Veon Bell, I chose Northern Iowa's David Johnson, who was one of the stars of Senior Bowl week.

It was a good choice on my part. Johnson just might be the closest thing to Bell in this draft.

He measured in at 6-0, 224 pounds on Friday and said he hopes to run in the 4.4 range in the 40.

We'll see about that, but like Bell, Johnson went under-recruited coming out of high school. Also, like Bell, Johnson also thrives as a receiver out of the backfield.

There's a reason for that. Coming out of high school, most colleges viewed Johnson, who said he was 190 pounds with his clothes on, as a wide receiver. He had split time at wide receiver and running back in high school.

Because of that, like Bell, Johnson understands route trees, runs crisp routes and also has very good hands.

Johnson said he was scheduled to meet with a number of teams, including the Steelers, tonight, so they are interested in him. But so are a lot of teams. Johnson isn't a first-rounder, but if he does go out and run a sub 4.5 40, he'll go as high as the second round. If, as expected, he runs in the 4.6 range, he could be available to the Steelers in the third or fourth round.

And he would be an ideal backup to Bell.

@ Bruce Arians was making the rounds today and said that former Steelers linebacker Larry Foote will join his coaching staff this offseason - though Foote isn't officially retiring.

Arians said Foote will work with the Cardinals, for whom he played last season, throughout the offseason and make a final decision about whether he'll continue as a player once the team gets closer to training camp.

@ Duke star receiver Jamison Crowder, who is 5-8, was asked if there are any smaller NFL receivers he looks up to or patterns his game after.

He immediately mentioned the Steelers' Antonio Brown as being that guy.

Crowder said his coach at Duke, former Steelers assistant Scottie Montgomery, began showing him tape of Brown when he joined the staff there a couple of years ago.

While some of the media guys there were looking to pin Crowder down as strictly being a slot guy, Crowder wasn't having any of that.

"Antonio Brown can play all over the field," Crowder said. "I just don't want to single my game to the slot. I want to be versatile, show that I do play outside and inside."

@ Pitt offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings was originally scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday along with the rest of the offensive line group. But that didn't happen.

Then, he was expected to be out early Thursday. But he didn't come out all day.

He's now expected to speak on Friday.

Taking that much time with the teams usually indicates there is a medical issue with a prospect, but I haven't heard anything concrete as of yet.

@ The Steelers and Bills will not have their joint practices this summer as they did last year in the week before their annual preseason game.

Those practices were done as an agreement between Mike Tomlin and Doug Marrone and Marrone is no longer with the Bills.

And with the Steelers now having five preseason games, they weren't too inclined to want to add to their training camp schedule, anyway.