Here is Gimpy’s take on how things look for the Steelers and Buccaneers. Doesn’t sound promising – if he’s right. And Gimpy is right at least a handful of times every year.
by NFL Gimpy
After going over the Colts and Seahawks, I asked you what you wanted me to go over this week. The consensus seemed to be to go over “a cliff,” I ‘m not sure who most of you are referring to, but when I think of teams about to go over a cliff, I think of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With these two teams, I see tremendous issues for the 2012 season. The Stillers as they call them here in Picksburgh have salary cap, injury, and free agent issues. The Bucs have leadership, coaching, and experience issues. I’ll start off with the Stillers n’at. (If you don’t understand Pittsburghese, just pretend a Boston accent mated with a redneck).
The Steelers were a popular Super Bowl pick before they got Tebowed. The game exposed a lot of issues for the Steelers: an aging defense, issues on the OL, and an offense that can’t do anything if Big Ben is hobbled. The good news is Big Ben will be just fine for the start of the season. The bad news is that everything else is at best the same, if not worse.
I’ll start off with their salary cap situation because that fuels every problem after it. The best number I can find was as of February 6th, NFL.com reported that the Steelers were $22.5 million over the cap. That’s not good. They have restructured several contracts by converting roster bonuses and salaries into signing bonuses to free up some space, so I’ll be very generous and say they’re still $15 million over the cap. When I say restructure, I want to take a second to explain how this works in a very simple manner that I’m sure cap experts will want to strangle me for.
Let’s say Joe Smith signs a contract with the Steelers. The deal is 4 years, $19 million, with a $4 million signing bonus and a $3 million roster bonus in the 2nd year. His salary is 12 million divided up evenly over the 4 years (which never happens, being simple here). The main point to realize is that signing bonus is prorated over the length of the contract for salarly cap purposes, not all at once like a roster bonus. Let’s take a look at his cap numbers over those 4 years:
Year 1: $3 million salary, $1 million salary cap proration (total $4 million)
Year 2: $3 million salary, $1 million salary cap proration, $3 million roster bonus (total $7 million)
Year 3 and 4: $3 million salary, $1 million salary cap proration (total $4 million each year)
Here’s in a nutshell what the Steelers are doing. They see that roster bonus in year 2 and convert it to a signing bonus. This means instead of a $3 million cap hit in Year 2, it’s only a $1 million cap hit and the remaining $2 million is spread into Years 3 and 4. This gives them an immediate savings of $2 million on the cap for Year 2 of the contract. They’re doing this in a much more complicated manner, but that’s how they get immediate cap savings: they push it into the future so they can stay under the cap this season. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section or tweet me and I’ll point you in a better direction for salary cap info.
Ok, class is dismissed, let’s go to the bar! Wait, nevermind. Keep reading about the Steelers!
Like I said, I’m being very generous if I say they’re currently $15 million over the cap, it’s likely a little bit higher. This fuels all of their other problems. When you’re restructuring contracts and figuring out who you can cut to just avoid penalties from the NFL, you’re in trouble. The Steelers aren’t a team with only one or two holes and they need that cap space to at least keep some very important free agents and/or find their immediate replacements in free agency. That lack of cap space is going to kill them.
Let’s start off with injuries. Big Ben will be ok, but will starting RB Rashard Mendenhall be? Mendenhall tore his ACL the last regular season game vs. Cleveland and his availability for 2012 is a question mark. Mendenhall isn’t an All Pro RB, but he’s certainly a good starter and after him there’s not much. Backup RB Isaac Redman is an unknown to most of the NFL for a good reason. He’s 27 years old and only in his 2nd NFL season. He went to Bowie State. Without google, I would venture to say most people have no idea where Bowie State is. Could Redman be one of those Cinderella stories? Possible, but doubtful. I’m sure Steelers fans won’t like hearing that, but I really don’t see anything beyond “good backup RB” in him. Redman is a restricted free agent and I can’t imagine a scenario where he isn’t a Steeler in 2012. With Mendenhall hurt, the Steelers need someone and they seem like to Redman a lot. After Redman is journeyman Mewelde Moore who’s more of a 3rd down back and not a guy you’d ever rely on to carry the bulk in any offense at this point in his career. Moore is a free agent, but could re-sign for a very small amount. Given their cap situation, I expect the Steelers to draft a RB in the first 4 rounds to help the running game. They will not be able to afford a good veteran RB unless maybe a guy like Ronnie Brown will take a small contract again in 2012.
Even if he were healthy, Mendenhall still might have an issue in 2012. What’s that issue? Absolute garbage blocking for him. Sure Maurkice Pouncey is a Pro Bowl caliber C. After him the best grade I could give a player is average. In 2012, the projected starters at OT are Willie Colon at RT and Marcus Gilbert at LT. Colon missed almost all of the 2011 season after tearing his triceps in Week 1. Gilbert does fit their scheme, but you’re going to move a 2nd year player who’s not a very good pass blocker to Big Ben’s blind side? Big Ben was the 4th most sacked QB in the NFL last season (40 sacks over 15 games). I’m the kind of guy who wants an elite pass blocker protecting my 9-figure QB’s backside. That is not Gilbert.
If I grade both Colon and Gilbert as average, I’m probably being generous because Gilbert wouldn’t be a LT for most teams and Colon is worth so much to the Steelers they’re trying to cut his pay… that doesn’t say much about him. You don’t ask your most experienced OT who’s a projected starter to take a pay cut unless you think he’s not worth his current salary, which isn’t that much for a starting OT. The primary backup is Jonathan Scott and past OT stalwart Max Starks is a pending free agent they appear to have no interest in bringing back. Average at best starters+below average depth at OT=scary.
At Guard, the best word to describe their situation is in fact offensive. Most NFL teams would be panicking if their OG situation looked like the Steelers. 2011 starter Ramon Foster is a restricted free agent. The info I’ve found says Doug Legursky is an unrestricted free agent, but he could be restricted. Legursky started the most games for them at LG in 2011. Chris Kemoeatu is probably going to be cut in a cap and talent move, this will save them about $2.3 million in 2012. To be blunt, they shouldn’t keep any of them. Maybe keep Foster for the sake of continuity and the cheap RFA (restricted free agent) price tag, but that’s it. If they’re going to roll with Gilbert and Colon at OT, they need very good OGs to make their running game work and take some pressure off of Big Ben.
Matt Alkire posted his mock draft last night and he has the Steelers targeting Kevin Zeitler of Wisconsin at OG as their first round pick. Matt watches far more tape than I do of college prospects because he actually does do this whole football thing for a living. I’m a huge fan of Wisconsin OL and I think Zeitler could start for them on Day 1 because he’ll instantly be more talented than just about everyone on their OL not named Pouncey. That doesn’t solve OG, but Zeitler and Pouncey could form a formidable interior presence to run behind. At the other spot? Foster would be tolerable for another year if necessary and unfortunately the cap is going to force that. The Steelers don’t like signing free agents and it’s kind of ironic that the team who never signs free agents from other teams has an awful cap situation. I think the Steelers need to sign a veteran to a small contract, take an OG in the first 2 rounds and at least one more later in the draft. Does that fix the OL? Hell no, but if it can be a little better than 2011 maybe Big Ben will survive 2012.
Then there’s the issue of an aging defense. Casey Hampton could be cut in a move that could save them nearly $6 million towards the cap. Hampton has at times been a dominant 3-4 NT, but he’ll be 34 at the beginning of the season and is rapidly declining in skill. Troy Polamalu may have lost a step. James Harrison and Brett Keisel will also be 34 and now that Keisel has shaved his legendary beard off I fear the magic will be gone. James Farrior? 37 years young. The most important figures on the Steelers elite defense the past 5 years could all be gone by the start of the 2013 season. There’s no easy solution here.
The good news is that there’s still talent. Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley are both very good LBs and both could be in the Pro Bowl in the future. Cam Heyward and Ziggy Hood have the ability to anchor the 3-4 DE position for years to come. The Steelers are allegedly very high on 3rd year player Jason Worilds at OLB. Despite his Wild Card performance, Ike Taylor is a good CB and has a few years left in the tank. The problem is if all the old guys continue their decline in 2012, this defense will take a huge step back and if the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have a great defense, then who are they?
I see huge steps that need to be made, but how? They need a new NT but those aren’t easy to find. They need a new ILB starter for 2013 because Farrior and Larry Foote won’t cut it. You can never replace Troy Polamalu, you can only hope to put a warm body there that won’t suck. When he’s on his game, Polamalu is a game changer. If he’s a step slow, his wild, reckless style of play will turn from asset to liability when instead of attacking the ball he’s a hair late. When you’re a safety, half a second is the difference between an interception and giving up a touchdown. When you’re a guy like Polamalu who plays the whole field, it could be a disaster if you’re relying on him to make key stops. If I’m the Steelers, I try to trade as many of my liabilities as possible for late round draft picks and just start accumulating bodies and hope talent comes out of it. The Steelers are phenomenal at identifying late round and undrafted talent and boy do they need some on defense very quickly. Expect the Steelers to defense be competitive in 2012, but after that there is likely to be a drop-off and they will not be as dominant.
I have no idea how to get a NT for them. They can spend a 2nd-4th round pick on an ILB and a Safety to “replace” Polamalu. This won’t fix their problems, but hopefully they can do a better job filling the future holes on defense than they have on the offensive line.
Last but certainly not least are Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Wallace is a restricted free agent in 2012 and Brown will be in 2013. Wallace and Brown are one of the best starting WR duos in the NFL. They combined for over 2300 yards and 10 touchdowns receiving. Brown is one of the best return men in the NFL and he was the first player in NFL history to have 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards. Brown was voted team MVP. I don’t have to tell you that Mike Wallace is one of the most dangerous WRs in the game. Wallace is going to command top 10 WR money, which the Steelers may not be able to afford. The way their cap situation is right now, they definitely can’t afford to extend Wallace this season and Brown the next. Here’s where the dilemma goes from bad to worse.
Let’s say the Steelers give Mike Wallace the highest tender possible, a 1st round tender (the new CBA removed the 3rd round pick from the highest tender). I don’t have the numbers, but the restricted tag will certainly be less than the $9.4-9.8 million the franchise tag will cost. The Steelers have to be leaning towards only the top restricted free agent tender and not the franchise tag for cap reasons. Now, let’s say you’re the New York Jets or San Francisco 49ers. Who would you rather have for a 1st round pick, Mike Wallace or Michael Floyd? Not to insult Floyd who is a very good NFL prospect, but Wallace has shown he can dominate in the NFL and what better way to protect a so-so QB than a deep threat that can outrun everyone?
This almost forces the Steelers to put the franchise tag on Mike Wallace if they want to keep him for 2012 because he’d be a fool to take a contract before they’re forced to tag him. For only a 1st round pick and a boatload of cash, a 26 year old elite WR is worth it. 2 first round picks? Probably not, last year’s Falcons draft day trade for Julio Jones notwithstanding. If they put the franchise tag on him, that puts an additional $9+ million on an already huge salary cap. Can they afford that? I’m not sure. Let’s take my $15 million over the cap estimate. They would need to cut at least $30 million off of their current cap number to put the franchise tag on Wallace, sign draft picks and undrafted free agents, and keep some of their low end free agents to fill the roster.
Allow me to make a list of who they would possibly need to cut in order to find $30 million (2012 cap savings in parentheses): Hines Ward ($3.4 million), Chris Kemoeatu ($2.4), Casey Hampton ($5.9), James Farrior (2.8), Larry Foote ($3.0), Aaron Smith ($2.1 million), Will Allen ($1.3), Arnaz Battle ($1 million)…and I’m still not at $30 million. I have no idea how they could possibly afford to pay Mike Wallace a franchise level tender. Yes, of course an extension is possible, but Mike Wallace could hold the Steelers hostage if he wants money they can’t afford to pay him. He could essentially threaten to sign the franchise tag and put them over the cap. If they do somehow find a way to extend Wallace, how would they give Antonio Brown big $$? Wallace may be the better receiver, but you can’t discount what Brown brought to the table in the return game. If you can figure out how to extend Wallace this year and Brown next AND stay under the cap in 2012 without losing half of your roster, Mr. Rooney is offering a week in Paris with Rooney Mara for your troubles.
All in all, the Steelers are about to get a gut punch in the next year or two. Big Ben is an elite QB, but without improved OL play and keeping his offensive playmakers on the same team, the offense will look about as good as it did against Denver. If they don’t find a way to replace their old vets on defense with some young talent, this team could quickly fall behind the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were expected to be a very competitive team in 2011 after a great 2010 campaign that almost got them in the playoffs. Josh Freeman looked like an elite QB in the making. Mike Williams (WR) quit on his team at Syracuse and was a rookie of the year contender. LeGarrette Blount looked like the monster he was expected to be before he screwed up his collegiate career with a sucker punch. They added a ton of defensive talent in the 2010 and 2011 drafts. Then, reality hit them the 2nd half of 2011. After a good 4-2 start, Tampa dropped 10 straight games. During that stretch, they lost 8 games by 10+ points and 5 of those were by 19 or more. That doesn’t even include a 45 point loss to the 49ers early in the season. During that 10 game losing streak, they let the Blaine Gabbert led Jaguars drop 41 points on them.
Needless to say, they were pretty bad. Most fingers are being pointed at now fired head coach Raheem Morris. The Bucs aren’t short on talent, they were very short on execution and discipline. The offense looked lost on numerous occasions. The defense tried their hardest to make every mistake a defense can make. You don’t give up 27 or more points up 10 times in a season without sucking out loud. On offense, every skill player that was great in 2010 regressed in 2011. Blount, despite starting and appearing in more games, had fewer yards and touchdowns. He was banged up late in the season and the Bucs had no one else to run the ball. Over the last 5 weeks of the season, he had 46 carries for 137 yards and 1 touchdown, a 2.97 yards per carry average. I won’t even bother looking at the other guys who ran the ball because I just ate lunch and I don’t want to puke it up. Kregg Lumpkin? I’m feeling queasy just writing his name.
At WR, Mike Williams had the same amount of catches in 2010 and 2011, 65. The problem is his yards per catch dropped by 2.9 and he went from 11 touchdowns to 3. Arrelious Benn can’t seem to stay healthy and I’m pretty sure Kellen Winslow doesn’t technically have knees anymore. In 2010, Josh Freeman had 25 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, and a 95.9 rating. 2011? 16 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, and a 74.6 rating.
So we have a defense that sucks out loud, your skill positions all took a major step back, and there are rumors of a very undisciplined team and a coach who’s an easy scapegoat for it all. Solution? Fire that coach, hold a coaching search where you’re turned down multiple times, then settle for a guy who’s the best coach in the Big Least, aka the tallest midget. Sounds great, doesn’t it? There were stories they had Chip Kelly of Oregon lined up but apparently he backed away at the last minute. Numerous NFL coordinators were linked to the job, but none panned out. That led them to Schiano.
Peter King, a big fan of the Greg Schiano hire they settled on, will not convince me this is a good hire. The argument is that Schiano took a Rutgers program that was one of the worst in college football and made them an above average team. He’s a coach who focuses heavily on discipline, which is what the Bucs need. Why do I not see the logic in that? Once he got Rutgers out the basement and to a respectable level, they leveled off. Rutgers never played in a single BCS Bowl game. They never won the Big East. Ok, they won 5 straight bowl games, but 4 of those 5 teams had a 7-5 or worse record, the lone team better than that was an 8-4 UCF team. Getting Rutgers to a respectable level was impressive. He accomplished that in 2006. Since then? The program has been a 7 to 9 win team who can’t win the worst BCS conference and beat up on subpar bowl opponents. Why would you want a coach whose team hasn’t improved in 5 years?
I don’t see Coach Schiano succeeding in Tampa, which I’m not happy about because I’m a huge Josh Freeman fan. I really think Freeman has the tools to be a great NFL QB but a poor head coach will really limit his upside. The good news is that his offensive coordinator is Mike Sullivan, Eli Manning’s former QB coach. I love that hire. So, what should Coach Schiano do other than step down after 2012 so a better coach can take his place? Unlike the Steelers, he has options.
Tampa Bay has about $60 million in cap space for the 2012 season. They may have sucked last year, but they can do a lot with that cap space. They can buy about a third of a starting lineup with that. Their impending free agents aren’t that bad either. The top unrestricted free agents are Ronde Barber, starting OG Jeremy Zuttah, starting Safety Sean Jones, and starting OLB Geno Hayes, a much better situation than most teams.
Ronde Barber may retire, he’s getting old. The rest of them should be pretty easy to re-sign if they want them. The Bucs have the cap space for Zuttah and he’s not the kind of guy a team is going to break the bank for in free agency. If they keep him fine or they could easily look for an upgrade, either one works. Sean Jones isn’t anything special, but he does seem to have found a home in Tampa the past 2 seasons. Hayes is a talented young LB, but again not a player who’s going to attract the big $$ in free agency, there are a handful of LB prospects teams are going to want more. Hayes does also have some character concerns after being stabbed by an ex girlfriend and being tazed for trespassing in the past; that could affect his value.
What should the Bucs do? Spend, spend, and spend. Their primary focus should be defense. There isn’t a position that couldn’t use an upgrade. Sure, they’ve spent 4 1st and 2nd round picks on the DL the past 2 drafts but that doesn’t mean they have 4 starters for the 2012 season. 2010 top 5 pick Gerald McCoy has finished both seasons on the injured reserve. 2011 2nd round pick DaQuan Bowers didn’t impress and has some huge durability questions. At LB, the starters were OK, but none were much of a playmaker. At CB, Ronde Barber is expected to be gone and Aqib Talib is working hard to make himself the poster child of NFL players who can’t stay out of trouble. At Safety, Tanard Jackson has already been suspended for a year due to violating the substance abuse policy. One more and he’ll be done in the NFL.
You fix this defense by adding experienced talent. The Bucs are in position to overpay people and they need to do it. Whether or not they will is a huge question mark. I’m going to discuss what they should do. I would overpay for a CB like Brent Grimes. Grimes isn’t a flashy guy nor is he a top cover corner, but he’s disciplined, won’t be a distraction, and will bring a solid veteran presence to their defense. If he’s not available, maybe Carlos Rogers could work. I would bring in at least one veteran DL, if not two. If Brodrick Bunkley leaves Denver, he could be a good fit at DT, as could Sammie Lee Hill who’s a bit of an odd man out in Detroit. I’d consider a vet like London Fletcher at LB who goes 110% on every play to show young Mason Foster what it takes to be a great NFL LB. I really think they need to add at least two defensive starters via free agency. They have a ton of young talent, especially on the DL, but not enough experience. 2 or 3 defensive starters could help the young talent turn into a pretty solid group.
The Bucs need some young defensive talent in the draft as well. A defensive playmaker high in the draft is a very good idea. Morris Claiborne is a name frequently associated with them and for good reason. He’s one of the top CB prospects of the past several drafts. The good news is that the CB class is pretty deep this year and even if they do add a starter in free agency, a high draft pick is still very, very necessary. They could also use a Safety in the draft and this is not a very good class for them. I don’t think any defensive line positions should be directly targeted because of how much they’ve spent there. Develop the talent you have.
On offense, I think the #1 goal is to add a playmaker. Mike Williams was that guy in 2010 but after a rough 2011 I wonder if he’ll ever be that guy again. I don’t mean that in a “this guy had a bad year, he’s done” kind of way, I mean it in a “this guy has a history of bad decisions and quitting and handling adversity is not something he does well.” Arrelious Benn is talented but can’t stay healthy. Kellen Winslow is not a playmaker at this point in his career. Blount can look special, but he has character issues that match Mike Williams and struggled to stay healthy this season.
Now the question is where do they get that playmaker? Do they go after a free agent WR like Vincent Jackson or get Justin Blackmon in the draft, a RB like Trent Richardson, or perhaps Jermichael Finley doesn’t get franchise tagged (doubtful but possible)? If finding a playmaker were easy, every NFL team would do it. It’s not, obviously. They simply need to sit back and say “where do we find a playmaker, 1st round draft pick or free agency?” I would bring a fleet of armored cars to Vincent Jackson’s house, cash on hand. To help Blount, I would draft a RB in the mid rounds and sign a veteran free agent like LaDanian Tomlinson or Ronnie Brown. Both players are in the twilight of their careers, but have succeeded at a very high level in the NFL and can hopefully sucker punch Blount until his head is on straight.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the Bucs have a great OL, but they’re solid. Davin Joseph is very good OG, Trueblood and Penn are certainly good NFL starters and while Center Jeff Faine is a wily veteran, he could use some competition. Still, the OL appears to be the best group on paper for the Bucs. Sure there were some disappointing performances, but the talent and experience is there. If they do upgrade, it will be an upgrade over Faine or Zuttah. There are some options in free agency at both positions but I can’t go too absurd in my predictions because the Bucs are notoriously cheap, hence why they have $60 million in cap space.
Last but not least, I’d like to see an upgrade at the TE position. Kellen Winslow has been a great “soldier” in Tampa and upgrading here would be a luxury, but I think it’s time to move on. I touched on possibly adding Jermichael Finley, but that’s a pipe dream. There isn’t much in free agency (Fred Davis likely to get the franchise tag as well) but the draft does pose some interesting options. Orson Charles in the 2nd round might be bad value for the Bucs (not that Charles is bad value there, just bad for the Bucs given their numerous needs) but he’s a great playmaker that could be too tough to pass up if he’s there in the 2nd. There’s some talent at TE coming from Stanford and Clemson as well for them to check out.
In summation, the Bucs have some young talent, but discipline issues, poor coaching, and poor management have put them in the situation they are right now. The good news is they have the cash and cap room necessary to fix it. They need just about every penny. I think the Schiano hire will come back to bite them but Josh Freeman will develop into a pretty good QB under new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. Expect a rough couple of years Bucs fans.