The retirement of Heath Miller came as a stunner to many. It shouldn’t have. As we talked about on our show hours before the news broke Friday (Go to 41:09 of this link http://sportstalk.triblive.com/download/219TR16.mp3), Heath gave some subtle signs this could happen after the Denver loss. In a locker clean out interview session, the normally guarded tight end actually had some water welling up in his eyes (Discussed here http://sportstalk.triblive.com/tomlin-shows-a-human-side-in-defeat-by-tim-benz ).
But Miller’s retirement was a bummer beyond simply saying goodbye to a fan favorite. It also created a hole to fill for a team that was perceived to be an AFC betting favorite in 2016. Or maybe we should say ANOTHER hole. Because next year’s Steeler roster may be more in flux than we care to admit.
In the immediate aftermath of the AFC playoff loss to Denver, we used this space to discuss the optimism of the Steeler fan base http://sportstalk.triblive.com/should-be-steelers-in-super-bowl-by-tim-benz over “what could have been” if the Steelers weren’t so adversely affected by injury (and a fumbling fifth string running back). A lot of that optimism has carried over to discussion of next year since the Steelers have so many star players coming back. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger and his most important wide receivers will return. DeAngelo Williams, Maurkice Pouncey, and Le’Veon Bell should be healthy by training camp. Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward, and Mike Mitchell are all under contract and coming off good years.
So there are positives aplenty. Probably more certainty than most teams. But Miller’s retirement underscores that there may be more cracks to fill than many followers of the Steelers are acknowledging.
If you asked the average Steeler fan what the Black and Gold needed to do in the offseason improve another level or two, the knee jerk response likely would’ve been: “Get rid of all the cornerbacks (except maybe Will Gay) and get a younger safety than Will Allen to play next to Mitchell.”
Based on how obvious of a weak link the secondary was a season ago, that makes sense. But clearly Kevin Colbert’s punch list isn’t that simple. The Steelers also must…
-ADDRESS LEFT GUARD: Ramon Foster will either cost a pretty penny to keep in free agency, or his replacement must be signed/drafted. During his season ending press conference, Mike Tomlin didn’t seem keen on the idea of moving Cody Wallace to guard. He seemed more optimistic about the notion of Kelvin Beachum going there instead. Yet, despite his knee injury, Beachum has been touted by many outlets as being a top-five free agent tackle. And the Steelers aren’t likely to pay him tackle money to play guard if they stay invested in Al Villaneujva as the starting LT.
-GET DEPTH ALONG THE D-LINE: On locker clean out day Cam Heyward definitively stated he and Stephon Tuitt need more help and fewer reps up front. Unless the likes of LT Walton, Dan McCullers, and Steve McLendon get better (and more position flexible) they won’t get it from the current roster.
-FIGURE OUT JAMES HARRISON’S SITUATION: Harrison’s agent and Colbert are both talking like Harrison will be back. Harrison says he needs up to six weeks to decide. That takes us through the start of free agency. If Harrison also decides to retire, Pittsburgh must do one of the following- 1) Replace him on the roster 2) Promote Anthony Chickillo 3) Have Arthur Moats swing between both sides more often 4) Let it ride with Jarvis Jones full time.
-RESTRUCTURE LAWRENCE TIMMONS’ CONTRACT: If that can’t be done, in a team friendly manner (which is aided by the $4 million in cap space created by Miller’s retirement), then he may be a cap casualty. This would create yet another roster spot to be filled. Or Vince Williams and/or Sean Spence would have to show dramatic improvement to be elevated into a starting position.
-SORT OUT BACK UP QB: Is Mike Vick worth keeping? Is Landry Jones ready for full time #2 status? Is Bruce Gradkowski ready to return with a clean bill of health? If the answer to any two of these three questions is “no” then more cap dollars or a pick will be spent here.
So let’s paint an easy scenario. Let’s say Harrison returns along with one of the last year’s three back up QB’s. And we’ll also grant that Miller’s cap savings will allow Pittsburgh enough room to maneuver a restructure of Timmons’ deal.
If that picture is painted, will the Steelers have enough cap room & draft picks to keep Will Gay and adequately…
-Sign/Draft Allen’s replacement at safety (unless you re-sign Robert Golden)
-Sign/Draft at least one other CB to replace Brandon Boykin or Antown Blake (since Ross Cockrell is likely on the roster an exclusive rights guy and Senquez Golson will now be able to play)
-Sign/draft Foster’s replacement
-Sign/draft at least one other defensive end who can contribute this year
-Find a third quarterback
-Sign/draft another tight end (unless you think Jesse James or Matt Spaeth are ready to be replace Miller as a starter).
And that’s not to mention a likely need of adding another tackle if Beachum is lost and the team finally gets out from under the Mike Adams dead weight. So that’s replacing at least four starters (maybe five if Gay’s price is too high) and two key reserves. And, oh by the way, the Steelers also don’t have a fifth or sixth round choice this year.
Of course those jobs will be taken by… somebody. Kevin Colbert isn’t going to morph into the football version of Jim Rutherford and only play with four offensive linemen or something like that. But the quality of free agent replacements or immediate help from rookies is something to be concerned about for a team that is supposed to take two steps forward instead of one step back.
And now with a high pick or free agent dollars suddenly needing to be directed at tight end as well, the absence of HEEEEEAAATTTTTH creates a bigger problem than just figuring out what to lovingly chant whenever a big white guy catches a pass.