Even when dealing with injuries at crucial positions, the Steelers’ 2015 season should be deemed a success; Pittsburgh advanced to the playoffs, even though Ben Roethlisberger missed time during the regular season, and Le’Veon Bell was on injured reserve. An improbable win over a divisional rival before falling to the eventual champions is a strong effort for a team with such clear defensive flaws.
An offensive juggernaut, the Steelers' task this offseason is clear: upgrade their defense, elevating it back to its former glories. Here, we’ll examine who the Steelers should re-sign, let walk, and target on the open free agent market as they look to step forward in 2016.
LT Kelvin Beachum
Beachum’s injury-shortened 2015 season may offer some pause, but his trajectory over the first three years of his career should offer the Steelers all the incentive they need to lock up their left tackle for the long term. His performance in 2014 earned him a spot among the top 60 of our top 101, and letting a tackle of that caliber walk would be unwise. Beachum improved in pass protection in each of his first three seasons, and showed promising signs of maintaining his 2014 form in the first five weeks of the 2015 season.
G Ramon Foster
The inconsistency in Foster’s performance over the last five years has been as a run-blocker, but his form as a pass-protector has been consistently strong. Foster surrendered just 31 pressures in 18 games this season, and had his best season of his career as a run-blocker. The Steelers’ offensive line has been on an upward trajectory in recent seasons, and keeping that line intact will only work to the benefit of their skill players.
CB Brandon Boykin
The Steelers made a smart acquisition during training camp with their trade for one of the league’s best slot cornerbacks, and then proceeded to leave Boykin on the bench until Week 13. From that point forward, Boykin earned a top-10 coverage grade among all cornerbacks, allowing a passer rating of 65.0 on his 21 targets. Boykin may not be able to play outside, but as a slot corner, there are few capable of playing on his level in what is an increasingly important battleground in the NFL.
S Will Allen
Allen brought surprising value as a run-defender and blitzer in a career year at age 33, and with a history as a solid special-teamer, there is value in retaining Allen on a short-term deal. His 10 pressures were fifth-most among safeties this season, and his 32 stops tied for second. Refining a role for Allen to contribute by attacking the line of scrimmage and working on special teams would still bring value for the Steelers on defense.
CB William Gay
Now north of 30 and with his performance in coverage trending down over recent seasons, it may well be time for the Steelers to bid farewell to William Gay. Missing 26 tackles over the last two seasons (13 each year), Gay slipped from allowing 9.5 yards-per-reception in 2013 to allowing 14.2 and 11.0 in the last two seasons, with five touchdowns allowed in 2014. As the Steelers aim to get younger on defense, Gay may be the next veteran out the door.
CB Antwon Blake
In 2015, Blake posted a league-high 1,074 yards allowed in coverage, eight touchdowns allowed (tied for second-most in the league), 28 missed tackles, a passer rating of 117.0 allowed, and our second-lowest coverage grade (ahead of only Brandon Browner). There’s not much more that you need to say to justify why the Steelers should have no interest in bringing Blake back.
LB Sean Spence
Since being drafted in 2012, Spence has only managed 804 snaps over the last two seasons after missing the first two years of his career; unfortunately, what we have seen has not been encouraging. With Lawrence Timmons advancing in years, the Steelers will be tempted to keep around a linebacker with familiarity of their scheme, but no aspect of Spence’s play over the last two seasons suggests he should be part of any succession plan. He has missed 13 tackles and earned a game grade above +1.0 in only three of his 30 career games.
S Eric Weddle
The Steelers are, as ever it seems, not blessed with a massive amount of cap space, so shrewd investments will be key until moves are made to free up money. Though the Steelers need to get younger on defense, putting the right veteran leadership and performance in place is also important, and Eric Weddle could certainly help the Pittsburgh secondary. Paired with Mike Mitchell, Weddle would bring versatility and unrivaled quality to the Steelers’ secondary, offering a sure pair of hands to support both a fledgling crop of cornerbacks and support a linebacker group that attacks aggressively and can leave gaps that need to be plugged by the secondary unit to cut off big plays.
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