The Pittsburgh Steelers had an unsuccessful season that was also a success.
Pittsburgh started out the campaign with a winless September, going 0-4 that month and looking worse than every team in their division – yes, even worse than the Cleveland Browns – in the process. The Steelers then rallied back and, thanks in part to the AFC being nothing short of awful, were in a position to back into a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season.
Pittsburgh fell just shy of participating in the postseason tournament, and part of that has to be on certain players not fully earning their paychecks. There are some easy ways for the club to free up some money before free agency again, but those running the Steelers will also have to make some difficult decisions, decisions they must get right if Pittsburgh is to again hang with the best of the best in the NFL.
10 WR Emmanuel Sanders: $2.5 million in 2013
Sanders was second on the Steelers in receptions last season, but that doesn't mean that his campaign wasn't disappointing. He reeled in only 67 of 112 targets, and he scored six touchdowns. Most noteworthy, as it pertains to Sanders and money, is that he is about to enter the free agent market.
The New England Patriots, who chased after Sanders a year ago, are reportedly still interested. Quarterback Tom Brady needs the weapons, as it's unclear if Rob Gronkowski will ever play a full season again, and it sure looks like Aaron Hernandez isn't coming back to the NFL anytime soon. Pittsburgh can do better, and do so at a better price.
9 DE Ziggy Hood: $2,990,860 in 2013
Fans and analysts alike cannot seem to agree on what the Steelers should do with Hood. He did lose his job during the campaign, but he also didn't put his head down during what was a contract year, and he was a solid role player before returning to the lineup because of injuries to others.
Hood's rookie contract is up, and it's not yet known what Pittsburgh is going to do, if anything, about the defensive end. He should not, in theory, cost the Steelers all that much this spring, and the team could use the depth up front on the defensive side of the ball. I'd bring him back, but only if the price is right.
Grade: Worth a discount
8 WR Antonio Brown: $3.12 million in 2013
Brown was one of the best WRs in the league in 2013. He finished the season with 110 catches, he went one yard shy of 1,500, and he scored eight touchdowns. Brown was named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-AFC Team, an honor he very much earned.
The Steelers wisely signed Brown to a five-year deal back in 2012. His price tag is going raise in 2014, but he's well worth the money.
7 S Ryan Clark: $4.75 million in 2013
The veteran of 12 NFL seasons had himself a fine 2013. He accumulated a total of 104 tackles, good for second-best on the Steelers, and he also picked off two passes. Those interceptions will likely be the final ones he grabs while wearing Pittsburgh black and gold.
The Steelers need to get younger, not older, in the team's secondary. There is zero indication that Clark is going to give his current club any hometown discount. He's going to cash in on one final big contract before beginning an inevitable career over at ESPN.
Grade: Thanks for the memories
6 DE Brett Keisel: $4.9 million in 2013
I get it, Pittsburgh fans. You like Keisel. You like that he looks like a throwback football player from decades past. He's been with the team since 2002.
Sometimes, you just have to know when to say goodbye.
The fact of the matter is that the team could get better production, either from a second day draft pick or via a free agent. Keisel has already taken steps out of Pittsburgh, trying to sell himself to Detroit. It's best for all involved.
Grade: Thanks, and goodbye
5 LB Lawrence Timmons: $5,816,250 in 2013
Timmons is not only the best defensive player on his team, having led the Steelers in total tackles (126) in 2013. He also happens to be one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL, and he would be a cornerstone player for any defense in the league.
At just 27 years old, it's not crazy to suggest that we haven't yet seen the best from Timmons. Even if we have, he's in the prime of his playing days, and he's pretty darn good right now. With a cap number of under $6 million, the guy's a bargain.
Grade: Worth every penny
4 TE Heath Miller: $6,458,500 in 2013
I have to be honest and say that I believe Miller to be maybe the most overrated tight end in the NFL. Even coming off of a serious knee injury, 58 catches and 593 receiving yards do not justify his having such a massive contract. Oh yeah, he only scored one touchdown, and he also had his worst ever season as a blocker.
He's good, yes, but he's no longer even the best tight end in the AFC North. I'm looking at you, Jordan Cameron.
The Steelers need to make one of two decisions: Find a way to extend Miller's deal in order to free up some cap space, or call it a day on his Pittsburgh career. The Steelers need the extra cash to splash in March, and Miller is no longer the player he was even a couple of years back.
Grade: Not worth what he's paid
3 CB Ike Taylor: $7,965,930 in 2013
Taylor has gone on record saying that he wants to retire as a member of the Steelers. That's great and all, but in order to do so he will likely have to move to safety. He's also going to have to give the club some money back.
Taylor will turn 34 years old in the spring, and Pittsburgh isn't in a place where they can afford the veteran at what will be close to a $12 million cap hit in 2014. This isn't a matter of being loyal to a team or to a player. It's business, and it will have to be good business for the club and for Taylor for him to stay with the team up through the end of his career.
2 S Troy Polamalu: $10,137,500 in 2013
Polamalu is one of the greatest defensive players in Pittsburgh history. He's exciting. He makes highlight reel tackles.
He also turns 33 years old in April, and he is going to be asked to take a pay cut.
It's understood that the club wants to keep Polamalu up through the end of his playing career. It's also worth noting that the safety has made quite a bit of money over the last decade. Everything points to his remaining in Pittsburgh, but that honestly might not be the best thing for the future of the team.
That secondary needs an injection of youth.
Grade: Money earned, but he's not worth what he's paid
1 QB Ben Roethlisberger: $13.595 million in 2013
I've been a huge fan of Big Ben over the years. He, when fully healthy, extends plays as good as does any mobile quarterback in the league. He's won multiple championships and even played in all 16 regular season games last season.
All of that said, I'd take any and all phone calls from teams who may want to trade for Roethlisberger this offseason if I was running the Steelers.
Roethlisberger, who will turn 32 years old in March, is not your standard 10-year veteran. He has taken a beating during his career, and he's going to continue being a punching bag for pass rushers because that's the way he plays. It's what has made him great, but it also makes him a big liability at this point in his career.
Grade: A risk