PITTSBURGH – General manager Kevin Colbert was disappointed with the repeat performance by the Steelers in 2013. Despite the back-to-back 8-8 seasons, Colbert has a different feeling in this offseason about the direction of the franchise.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday for the first time since the season ended, Colbert said he was encouraged by many things.
“I don’t think you can minimize the job Coach (Mike) Tomlin and the players did after the 0-4 start of really pulling it back together,” Colbert said. “We slipped a little bit a couple times after that, but really pulling it all together and finishing 8-4 and then 6-2. So are you encouraged by where we finished? More so in 2013 but that doesn’t override the fact that we still weren’t good enough. If we don’t accept the fact that we’re 8-8, we’re going to mislead ourselves, and we can’t do that.”
With that in mind, Colbert, Tomlin and his staff will head to Indianapolis for the NFL combine next week to assess this year’s crop of rookies who might help the Steelers get back into the playoffs next season.
The draft will again be critical to the Steelers. Nearly 40 percent of the roster is scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the NFL’s new calendar year begins March 11, including linebacker Jason Worilds, safety Ryan Clark, defensive linemen Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel and wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.
Colbert said the team, which is currently about $11 million over the NFL’s projected salary cap of $126.3 million, has been having internal discussions about the best way to proceed over the next few weeks to get under the salary cap and to re-sign some of its free agents.
“It’s safe to say we’re exploring different ideas with different players,” Colbert said. “That’s the truth of it at this stage. Is it negotiations? I think discussions are more the appropriate term.”
One of the biggest decisions looming concerns linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who is scheduled to count $13.59 million against the salary cap in 2014. Woodley has missed 14 games in the past three seasons with assorted leg injuries.
But if the Steelers chose to release him prior to June 1, it would actually cost them $14.17 million against their 2014 cap. Releasing him after June 1 would mean he would count $5.6 million against this year’s cap and $8 million against the cap in 2015. But the Steelers would have to carry his salary until June 1 and also would no longer have his services.
With Woodley sidelined for extended periods in 2013, Worilds emerged as the team’s best outside linebacker. The Steelers might not be able to sign Worilds prior to the start of free agency and also keep Woodley.
“LaMarr has had some durability concerns over the last couple seasons, and they’ve been legitimate injuries,” said Colbert, who noted the Steelers might be able to keep both depending on what they do at other positions. “I think any time a player has an injury and if it extends beyond a season I think it does become a concern. It has to be, because if a player’s not on the field, he’s not helping us.
“Is that a concern? Yes.”
Also a concern is the depth in the secondary.
With Clark and backup Will Allen headed to unrestricted free agency, the Steelers have an opening at free safety. Troy Polamalu and Shamarko Thomas return, as does Robert Golden, but Polamalu and Thomas are strong safeties.
“(We’re) probably not as deep as we’d like to be at either,” Colbert said. “But again, depending on who leaves and who stays, that could change.”
Colbert is eager to get to the combine and get an up-close look at the prospects in this year’s draft, which has been bolstered by a record 98 underclassmen.
With those underclassmen come some risks, according to Colbert.
“I’ll go on record and say this is the deepest class I’ve seen in 30 years, and a lot of that’s due to the influx of underclassmen,” Colbert said. “But I will also say in regard to that, even though it’s a talented group it has a bigger chance of failing because you’re going to get a lot of kids who aren’t physically or emotionally ready for this. So, to that point, we believe the longer a guy can delay his play, the better his chances of succeeding. Not to say that a rookie can’t come in and impact the season, or have a great start of his career, because we’ve seen that happen. But I think you see many more who benefit from learning and preparing and being ready for the challenge that they face.”