The Steelers are close. Their Toussaintian loss in the AFC Divisional Playoffs to eventual Super Bowl champion Denver — a game played without Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, or DeAngelo Williams — proves it.

How do they get over the hump in 2016?

Just staying healthy would be a nice start, of course.

But in addition to that yearly hope, here’s my realistic five-point plan that GM Kevin Colbert should follow in free agency to give Pittsburgh a great chance of playing in Super Bowl LI in Houston on February 5, 2017:

1 — Priority in-house re-signings: James Harrison, William Gay, Will Allen

It’s a salary cap league, which makes value signings extremely important. Sure, every fan wants Von Miller, Josh Norman, and Eric Weddle added to their team this offseason, but it’s not realistic.

The Steelers got great value from all three of these players in 2015, and should continue to exploit that in the future:

James Harrison is signed for 2016 and soon to be 38-years old, but maybe his late start in NFL life has kept him younger. Or, maybe it’s just his famous weight-room work ethic. Whatever the reason, Harrison is still durable (just one missed game in 2015) and can still play at a high level. Pro Football Focus graded him out last year as the 14th best edge defender in football. Not bad for a guy whose position coach wanted to limit to 25-snaps per game before the season began.


Harrison had five sacks in the regular season, two more in the playoffs, and is just three away from breaking Jason Gildon’s franchise mark for sacks in a career (77). By Colbert’s admission he’s been a great “mentor for the younger players”. Is he worth $1.5 million? Absolutely. Harrison’s camp will posture for a new deal, with some added up front money, but it’s a no-brainer. Pay that man his (reasonable) money, and bring him back.

William Gay has the baton from Ike Taylor, who had it from Deshea Townsend. Mid-round draft picks, overachievers who mold into being solid, dependable, veteran presences in the Pittsburgh secondary. Gay is a defensive captain who has played in 144 consecutive regular season games, the longest active streak among NFL corners. Plus, of course, he adds the ‘Big Play’ element as evidenced by his streak of five-consecutive Pick 6’s that ended this year.


Gay’s last deal with the Steelers was for just $4.5 million over three years. He’s going to triple that money, at least. He might have become a $6 million-per-year corner. Three years for a total of $18 million sounds reasonable to me, using the leverage that Gay once tried football elsewhere and it wasn’t fulfilling. Realistically, on the open market Gay might get a four year, $28 million dollar deal or more. But Pittsburgh has been good for Gay’s career, and in the end my bet is that a respectable Pittsburgh offer will outweigh bigger money to go play for Dick LeBeau in Tennessee or Ray Horton in Cleveland.

Will Allen will be 34-years old, but he looked as solid as ever at the end of last season. He played 72 of 74 snaps in the Cincinnati playoff game, and 62 of 74 against Denver, plus special teams. PFF graded him the ninth-best safety in football against the run and 13th against the pass. His career high mark in sacks (4) speaks to Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler’s willingness to use him in multiple ways. Allen brings nothing close to the flash of Troy Polamalu, but he made the Steelers look smart and stable in 2015 after they edged Polamalu to the retirement door.

Last year Allen agreed to a one-year, $1.1 million dollar deal. Would he sign up for it again? Maybe two-years with a little bump will do the trick. Then, let Allen groom the next young safety that the Steelers take in the second or third round of the draft.

2 — Sign your other starting Cornerback in free agency

By the playoffs, Brandon Boykin had become the Steelers defacto starter at corner across from William Gay (64 and 62 snaps in the team’s two playoff games, more than Antwon Blake or Ross Cockrell). Pittsburgh doesn’t trade away fifth-round draft picks flippantly, so they clearly valued Boykin’s ability and the role they brought him to fill.

While both Colbert and Boykin said they haven’t rule out reuniting again in 2015, it feels unlikely. Boykin sat so long before passing Cockrell on the depth chart, I doubt he trusts that he’ll be allowed to shine in Pittsburgh for the long haul. Plus, of course, he’ll be expensive.


Meanwhile, Cockrell will return along with draft picks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, and perhaps Gay. I expect the team to draft another corner in the second or third round, but it still leaves a big need on the roster for a proven NFL guy. And if team President Art Rooney is calling for better pass defense, then give him an upgrade over Antwon Blake.

My suggestions, knowing they’ll cost you: Patrick Robinson or Prince Amukamara.

These aren’t the ‘A’-level cornerbacks on this year’s market (Janoris Jenkins, Leon Hall, Trumaine Johnson, Casey Hayward, Pacman Jones, and Sean Smith), but they’re an upgrade and they’re realistic. Hey, if the Steelers are willing and able to give Johnson $8 or $9 million per year, I’m all for it, too.

But I’m guessing that’s not happening. So why not go for the best of the second-tier and see if Robinson or Amukamara will be sold on the hopes of a Lombardi Trophy for the $5 to $6 million range?

Robinson visited the Steelers last year before signing with San Diego, and by all accounts he had a good year. PFF graded him as the 30th best corner in the NFL last year, solid against both the run and the pass. After playing last year for just $2 million, 4 years and $25 million sounds a lot more likely for Robinson this time around in free agency. That’s close to what Buster Skrine got with the NY Jets last year, and close to what Pittsburgh erroneously paid Cortez Allen a few years back. If you can get him for even less, great.

Getting Amukamara for four and 25 really feels like a pipe dream, but maybe five and 35 gets it done? Sometimes, it’s worth stepping out of the comfort zone and sacrificing some of your long-term future.

The tough decision might be signing a second decent-money corner like this over keeping Lawrence Timmons. LT is in the last year of his deal – and expensive – and you might get along fine with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams as your starters. But with enough contract restructuring and kicking the can down the road, the Steelers should be able to both keep Timmons and go for this extra corner help as well.

3 — Sign your starting Left Guard in free agency

Free agent-to-be Ramon Foster is as good as gone.

Foster played 1,234 snaps this year and will be missed for solid on-field play in addition to terrific locker-room leadership. In an ideal world, he’d be returning to Pittsburgh. But just as Alan Faneca and Willie Colon have departed before him, Foster will be too expensive to justify bring back while rising star David DeCastro gets his rookie contract extended.

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While the 30-year old Foster cashes in elsewhere, the Steelers need to add an older, veteran presence to lean on for a year or two. I’m sure they’ll draft a late-round guard to compete with incumbent backup Chris Hubbard, but a championship team can’t just hope Hubbard pans out.

The good fits look like 32-year-old Jahri Evans (Saints), and 33-year-old Chris Chester (Atlanta) on a short-term contract. Heck, maybe Colon wants to come back on a one-year deal. Denver nailed it last year when they signed Evan Mathis to a one year, $4 million stop-gap at this position. Buffalo got a nice year out of Richie Incognito for one year and $2.3 million. The Steelers would be wise to do a similar deal.

4 — Sign a backup Offensive Tackle in free agency

I love the Alejandro Villanueva story. Maybe he’s the team’s franchise left tackle for five years to come.

But they need a solid Plan B. Mike Adams isn’t the answer. Kelvin Beachum is going to join Ramon Foster in free agent happy land.

So, on to the bargain tackles. I won’t pretend to be an expert here, but 32-year-old Eric Winston seems like a place to start. He only started two games for Cincinnati this year, but he contributed in 13 games to bring his NFL total to 141 over his career. There’s no love lost these days between Pittsburgh and the ‘Nati, but maybe Winston is ready to cross that 50-yard line join the (most recent) winning side.

It shouldn’t take much more than the veteran minimum, but it’s an important signing nonetheless.

5 — Sign a backup Quarterback in free agency

Landry Jones took big steps in 2015. Some might say he saved Pittsburgh’s season by beating the Arizona Cardinals after Mike Vick left with injury. He also contributed to wins over Oakland and Cleveland.

On the other hand, the last memory of Landry was an interception to Vontaze Burfict that should have sent the Bengals to a rare postseason win. Jones also had a clunker in Kansas City. He’s a great number three, but if I’m the Steelers I want an upgrade for my number two.

Pennsylvania native Chad Henne looked like a perfect fit as the new Bruce Gradkowski, but he just re-signed with Jacksonville. Other possibilities include: 32-year-old Drew Stanton, who started eight games in 2014 for Arizona; 33-year-old Matt Cassel, who started seven games last year for Dallas; and 30-year-old Matt Flynn who had some good moments with Green Bay in 2013. They’re worth a look, especially if they’re willing to sign for short term and small dollars.

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