It's officially the offseason, and one week before the start of the NFL Scouting Combine and three weeks before the start of free agency, General Manager Kevin Colbert offered some rays of hope to Steelers fans still smarting over the end of the 2015 season.
To summarize, the Steelers' salary cap situation "is pretty good;" as for the depth of this year's draft class, "the secondary looks to be a deep position, both at safety and at cornerback at this point;" and when it comes to William Gay's plans for 2016, "we are anticipating that he wants to continue playing, and I wouldn't see any reason we wouldn't want to have him here."
There have been published reports that the Steelers are projected to be a couple of million dollars over the 2016 salary cap, which kicks in across the NFL at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9. Numbers aside, Colbert doesn't foresee the Steelers having to make "drastic changes" to get themselves into compliance when the time comes.
"The cap situation, relative to other years, is pretty good," said Colbert. "We don't have to make a lot of drastic changes to be in compliance. There will be some give-and-take along the way to get into compliance by the start of the league year (on March 9), but nothing drastic. We'll be making adjustments throughout. If we add guys, depending on who we add, we may have to delete guys we didn't anticipate, but we'll only do that if we think we're improving the team."
The Steelers' preferred method of improving their team from one season to the next long has been the NFL Draft, and Colbert doesn't see the emphasis shifting away from that philosophy this offseason.
"If we add a lot from the outside, we would have to take a lot away from the inside, which I don't think is our plan," said Colbert. "We want to stay the course as best we can with as many of our own guys. And if there's a guy from the outside who makes sense, then we'll plug him in. A few years back when we signed Mike Mitchell, we knew we had a hole at the free safety position with Ryan Clark moving on. We felt we wanted to plug in a veteran there. You go back in time, it was James Farrior, it was Jeff Hartings. Other than that, we've never been big players in free agency. Our big play is keeping our own."
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Since the Steelers again will count most heavily on the draft when it comes to upgrading their roster, they seem to be fortunate that the way things are shaping up it seems as though what they need happens to be what's most plentiful in this particular class.
As Steelers President Art Rooney II said in late January, "I think when you look at it statistically, we weren't where we would like to be in pass defense. I would say that's an area we know we want to improve in. We certainly made progress on defense and got better as the year went on. I think we all agree that we need to be better in general as a pass defense."
In that respect, this is shaping up to be a good time to be looking for defensive backs in the draft.
"It looks like it's more of a defensive draft," said Colbert when asked to identify the strength of the class of 2016. "The secondary looks to be a deep position, both at safety and at cornerback at this point. Again, we are still guessing on a lot of the underclassmen that we talked about earlier. We don't know sizes, speeds, or personalities, especially on those kids. In the next couple of weeks, once we get through the combine and the next couple of months with pro days, we will have a much better feel for it. But at this point, where we stand with our evaluations, it looks like it will be more of a defensive draft. But the secondary is deeper than it has been for sure."
Colbert also reiterated the Steelers' belief that good pass defense comes from a combination of rush and coverage, and Harrison was a guy who provided them with five sacks and a team-high 15 pressures last season. When it ended after the loss to the Broncos in the AFC Divisional Round, Harrison, who has another year left on his current contract, was non-committal about returning for a 15th season.
"We're anticipating (Harrison) wants to continue playing, and I wouldn't see any reason we wouldn't want to have James here," said Colbert. "James came back and did a great job, not only on the field, but he was really a great mentor for our younger players. Not only the outside linebackers, but everybody. He quietly inspired those guys. The way he goes about his business every day when he's in the building, he teaches those guys how to be pros, without doing it intentionally."