Free agency is not yet a fortnight old, and the Steelers won't open training camp for another four-plus months. In Orlando for the NFL Owners' Meetings this week, Coach Mike Tomlin said what the Steelers did through the first 12 days of free agency isn't necessarily any more important than what lies ahead of them in terms of what that 90-man roster will look like when they arrive at Saint Vincent College to begin figuring it all out.
"I think we've had some real positive developments thus far," said Tomlin when asked to assess the offseason so far. "We got a young, talented guy like Mike Mitchell (pictured above), and Cam Thomas was important to us. Retaining Jason Worilds was important to us. Getting Heath (Miller) and Troy (Polamalu) done from an extension standpoint was important to us.
"It's still ongoing for us. But it's not that what is going to happen is going to be less significant than the things that I already mentioned, the things that we do moving forward – adding quality depth, insulating us vs. the unforeseen – is a big part of developing the type of team that we need to be."
The type of team the Steelers were in 2013 was an 8-8 group that missed the playoffs, but because their arrival at this 8-8 included winning six of their final eight games there was a sense of excitement for the immediate future accompanying them into this offseason. So far, the Steelers have done some things to their roster and had some things done to it, but does what they have right now constitute improvement?
"I don't have the answer to that, because we still got a lot of significant stuff to do with the rest of free agency and the draft," said Tomlin. "We're talking about probably as many as 10 more people who could be on our football team who aren't on our team as we sit here today. So it would be very premature of me to measure this group against that last group at this juncture. We are still very much in the process of building for 2014."
What most believed was going to be the signature move of this Steelers offseason was how they handled the Woodley-or-Worilds situation. Jason Worilds was perceived as an up-and-comer at the critical position of outside linebacker, while LaMarr Woodley was a once-productive player there whose previous three seasons had been ruined by a series of injuries.
Before free agency kicked off on March 11, the Steelers had made their decision. Worilds was designated their transition player at a one-year salary of $9.754 million, a move at a price that suggested Woodley's time with the Steelers was over, which was confirmed when the team subsequently made him a post-June 1 release.
But the earliest hint came at the end of the 2012 season when Woodley returned from injury and was switched from LOLB to ROLB because Worilds had been playing so well on the left side.
"I don't know that (Worilds) was any different. I just think the animal that he faces is a different animal," said Tomlin. "That right tackle is a little different animal than the left tackle. I think if you're really looking for differences in performance or highlighting differences in performance, the true answer might be there as opposed to what Jason is doing. Although, I will acknowledge that Jason has continued to improve since we've had him, and he has grown both on the field and off. Obviously, we like that growth and development."
That growth and development is going to be necessary, because along with the release of Woodley came the release of 12-year veteran Larry Foote. Those two moves leave Lawrence Timmons, at 27, the elder statesman of the unit.
"The guys who are here are going to have one more year of experience. We don't expect those guys to stay the same. We expect those guys to grow," said Tomlin. "We expect Worilds to grow. We expect Lawrence Timmons to grow. We expect Jarvis Jones to grow. Even though you lose some veteran leadership and experience with the loss of (Woodley and Foote), and that's significant, but at the same time, I think it is important that we all recognize and state we don't expect those who remain to remain the same. We expect them to continue to grow on and off the field."
One of the still-pending issues of this offseason has to do with depth in the offensive backfield, because there are no players under contract there at this point except for Le'Veon Bell and fullback Will Johnson. And an intriguing way to address that depth issue came to light early last week when the Steelers hosted Maurice Jones-Drew for a visit that extended to a second day to complete the player's medical dossier.
"I felt good about (the meeting with Jones-Drew)," said Tomlin. "We are open to it. I'll stop short of saying 'have to,' but we need to add quality depth to that position, whether it's through free agency or the draft. Le'Veon Bell is a talented player but a young player. It would be good to get a been-there, done-that type of guy in the room to maybe help him with growth and development. But I don't view it as a necessity, quite honestly, because Le'Veon is a very grounded and humble young man and is open to getting better, and is a good listener."
And as always with the Steelers, the picking they will do during the upcoming draft will have the most to do with adding the pieces necessary to return to the playoffs.
"I really just think it depends on how the rest of free agency shapes up," said Tomlin about the direction the Steelers' draft might take. "We have things that we feel we need to get done to insulate ourselves on both sides of the ball, and in the kicking game. And what we don't get done in free agency, we intend to finish off in the draft."
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