The Steelers roster has undergone a lot of change since their 2012 NFL season ended in a disappointing 8-8 non-playoff season, and in a January interview General Manager Kevin Colbert forecast as much. "Again, if we don't change 8-8, and we don't change the roster that produced 8-8," said Colbert at the time, "we'd be silly to expect a better result if we have the same group of guys."
It's now mid-March, and the Steelers have experienced change. James Harrison was cut after he and the team could not come to an agreement on an adjusted salary for 2013. Rashard Mendenhall (Arizona) and Keenan Lewis (New Orleans) and Mike Wallace (Miami) exercised their rights as unrestricted free agents and have signed with other teams. This is not to indicate Harrison, Lewis, Mendenhall, and Wallace were the culprits in last season's 8-8, now should it be taken to mean Colbert sees these departures as positives. But it does represent change, and change was necessary.
"You could obviously say that we lost starters and some starters have left us," said Colbert from Phoenix as the NFL convened there on Sunday for its annual spring meetings. "To this point we re-signed one starter and that would be Ramon Foster. Of course, Greg Warren is our starting long-sapper, and we've tried to add some complimentary pieces. We are still evolving as a roster, and I don't think that part of it will be completely done until we get through the draft and the college free agents. There's still time in free agency to make moves, and the draft will provide the final pieces that we're going to put back together with the roster.
"Only time will tell," added Colbert when asked to assess how this will impact the team's record in 2013. "We'll see where that goes. You could also argue that we lost pieces from an 8-8 team. So, can we get better? We hope. Had we re-signed folks, we were hoping to be better but now that we didn't we have to find replacements, again, via free agency or the draft. We hope that we ultimnately are a better team."
One of the reported changes was Emmanuel Sanders signing an offer sheet as a restricted free agent with the New England Patriots. Had that happened, the Steelers would have had seven days to match the Patriots offer or lose Sanders to New England and receive its third-round pick in this upcoming draft. Colbert said the Steelers have not received a signed offer sheet from the Patriots so far, nor do they have any knowledge that one is on the way.
But even if Sanders is to present the Steelers with a signed offer sheet some time before the April 19 deadline to do so, and even if the team would fail to match and end up losing him to go along with the others already gone, Colbert maintains the team won't panic.
"We'll wait to see what fits. If a player makes sense, if we think he's a better player and we can make it fit financially, then we'll investigate," said Colbert. "There are really no limitations on looking for other guys."
Recently, the Steelers have gone looking for familiarity. William Gay was brought back to fortify the depth chart at cornerback, and the same applies to Matt Spaeth at tight end, and Plaxico Burress at wide receiver. None of those signings necessarily mean the Steelers are satisfied now with those areas of their roster, Colbert said, just as none of the departures from those areas necessarily mean the team believes it needs to add to them.
"I don't like to use the word 'need,'" said Colbert. "I never did. I never will. It's going to be 'wants.' We don't know yet. We don't know until we get through free agency. We're going to continue to monitor every guy who's available. There might be some (free agents) we didn't think we had a chance (to sign) and all of a sudden the market changes and it becomes a discussion. We're not going to lock in on one position, or prioritize one position over another. If there's a player available in free agency who can make us better in whatever way he can do it, then we've got to look at him. It's the same thing with the draft. We're never going to go in saying, 'We have to have this position.'"
Colbert also responded to questions pertaining to a number of other areas of the roster and/or moves the Steelers have made so far this offseason.
On signing Bruce Gradkowski as a veteran backup quarterback, and whether it signals the end for Charlie Batch: "Bruce is a young, veteran backup. When I say young, I mean he still has some productive years, and it's not a year-to-year proposition. We were hoping to get an experienced backup who not only knows the league but knows our division very well. Of course, he understands the tradition of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he wanted to be a part of that. There's a lot of value in having a person like that in that role, as well. (As for Charlie Batch), we haven't ruled anybody out at this point. As I said earlier, we still have to continue to put this thing together, and it won't be finalized until we hit the 90-player mark after the draft."
On what went wrong with Mendenhall in 2012: "Rashard had health issues. I still believe it takes players with an ACL injury a full year (to recover). They may come back before a year, but I still don't think they are 100 percent until that full year is up. Obviously, we had Casey Hampton and we had a guy like Max Starks who started from Week 1, but they play different positions. Every player is different. Honestly, I don't think (Mendenhall) ever quite got to the point where he was 100 percent as we've seen him before."
On whether no Mendenhall means the Steelers need a franchise running back: "I think we need more production out of the running back position than we got last year. Of course, Jonathan Dwyer has signed his (restricted free agent) tender and he wants to join in the competition. Hopefully, Isaac Redman does the same and Baron Batch joins in as well."
On 2013 free agency turning into a buyer's market: "I honestly haven't studied it that much. I don't know if players aren't happy with what's available, or if teams are being more cautious. I honestly don't know, because I haven't spent a lot of time trying to analyze it, and we really won't because you don't have time until after the draft. You look back and see what the trends were. Maybe there is some significance to it. I just can't pinpoint it yet."