A third straight playoff berth was in jeopardy before the Pittsburgh Steelers reeled off seven straight wins to capture the AFC North crown with an 11-5 record. Then came playoff victories over the Dolphins and Chiefs, but Super Bowl hopes came to a grinding halt in a lopsided 36-17 AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots.
Here's a preview of things to come for the Steelers:
Litmus test for RB contracts
Le'Veon Bell was at a crossroads when the 2016 season, a contract year, began. His 2015 season was derailed by MCL and PCL tears in his right knee. Bell missed the first three games this season, serving a suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy -- his second drug suspension in as many years. Still, Bell solidified himself as the NFL's best dual-threat running back.
Bell, a second-round pick in 2013, became the first player in league history to average at least 100 rushing yards (105.7) and 50 receiving yards (51.3) per game for a season. He took his game to a different level in the postseason when he rushed for 337 yards in Pittsburgh's first two playoff games. A groin injury limited him to 11 plays in the AFC title game.
Bell will serve as a litmus test for a declining running back market. With Marshawn Lynch's retirement from the Seahawks after last season and the Vikings not expected to pick up Adrian Peterson's $18 million option for the 2017 season, there probably won't be any $10 million per year running backs remaining in the NFL for Bell's contract negotiations.
The Steelers reportedly are going to use a franchise tag on Bell. Based on the league's preliminary projections of a 2017 salary cap between $166 million and $170 million, Bell's franchise tag should range from $12.229 million to $12.524 million.
Bell's AFC Championship Game was a reminder that the best ability sometimes is availability. Nonetheless, use of the franchise tag should help Bell get a long-term deal in excess of $10 million per year provided he has eased Pittsburgh's concerns about his off-field issues and durability.
Antonio Brown's contract extension
Brown has been unhappy for a couple of years with the five-year, $41.9 million contract extension he signed in 2012 after only two seasons.
Since Brown clearly has outperformed the deal, the Steelers reworked his contract in each of the past two years to placate him while maintaining the long-standing team policy of not extending contracts until a player is in a contract year, with the only exception being quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2008. The Steelers shifted forward $6 million in the two tweaks of Brown's contract, leaving him with a $4.71 million salary in 2017.
Brown failed to live up to the outsized expectations created by his 2015 performance in which he probably would have shattered the NFL single-season receptions and receiving yards records if Roethlisberger didn't miss four games because of injury. Brown's 16-game totals with a healthy Roethlisberger in 2015 projected to 158 catches, 2,132 receiving yards and 13 touchdown receptions.
This season was a "down" year by Brown's standards partially because of the lack of another consistent option at wide receiver with Martavis Bryant serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Brown still caught 106 passes for 1,284 yards with 12 touchdowns to rank second, fifth and second in the NFL in those categories.
Brown's misguided live steaming of coach Mike Tomlin's postgame locker-room remarks on Facebook, with whom he has a six-figure deal, is unlikely to impact his chances of getting a new deal before next season starts. The Steelers lack playmakers in the passing game besides Brown and Bell.
Brown, who won't turn 30 until July 2018, can make a great case for supplanting A.J. Green as the NFL's highest paid wide receiver. Green's 2015 extension with the Bengals averages $15 million per year. Brown easily has been the league's most productive pass catcher the past four seasons. He leads the NFL in receptions (481), receiving yards (6,315) and touchdown catches (43) since the start of the 2013 season.
The Steelers usually enter an offseason with one of the NFL's worst salary-cap situations for an upcoming league year because of previous contract restructures to free up cap space by pushing cap obligations into the future. This isn't the case anymore.
Pittsburgh has approximately $129 million in 2017 cap commitments with 39 players under contract while a little more than $3.25 million of unused cap room is being carried over from the 2016 league year. Assuming a $168 million salary cap, the Steelers will eventually have close to $33 million of cap space with which to work.
Pittsburgh's cap room isn't as much as it seems even though it's better than in previous years. Putting a franchise tag on Bell will reduce cap space to under $21 million. A minimum of $2.25 million in cap savings would likely be generated from a long-term Bell deal because his 2017 cap number shouldn't be more than $10 million with one.
An extension for Brown might result in a slight increase of his $13,618,334 cap number for 2017 because almost $9 million of this figure is bonus proration and Pittsburgh contracts typically have a vanilla structure. With the exception of Roethlisberger, the only guaranteed money in Pittsburgh deals is a signing bonus. Roethlisberger's guarantees are for injury only. The bigger deals contain a third or fifth day of the league year roster bonus in the second year. The roster bonuses are supposed to be substitutes for additional contract guarantees. Since the overall guarantees in Pittsburgh contracts are usually less than comparable deals on other teams, a substantial signing bonus will likely be necessary with Brown.
Free agency/team needs
The Steelers have 13 unrestricted free agents, including Bell, linebackers James Harrison, Jarvis Jones and Lawrence Timmons, wide receiver Markus Wheaton, and running back DeAngelo Williams. Offensive tackle Chris Hubbard and cornerback Ross Cockrell are slated to become restricted free agents. The lowest possible tender, which should be around $1.8 million, is all that should be necessary with Hubbard, a reserve, and Cockrell. This amount would give Pittsburgh a team's 2017 fourth-round pick as compensation with an offer sheet on Cockrell, which is a rarity for restricted free agents.
Kicker Chris Boswell and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva are exclusive rights players who can be retained with $615,000 tenders, their league minimum salary. Since the two don't have any contract leverage or free agency rights, playing 2017 on a minimum contract is likely.
The Steelers typically aren't big players in free agency. The emphasis is usually on retaining their own players. The biggest outside signings in recent years have been tight end Ladarius Green last March and safety Mike Mitchell in 2014. Both are on deals averaging $5 million per year.
The Steelers couldn't work out a new deal with Timmons, an inside linebacker, before the season started. Timmons led the team in tackles for a fifth consecutive year. Remaining with the Steelers will require Timmons take a pay cut from the five-year extension averaging approximately $9.5 million per year he got in 2011.
A contract more comparable to the $7,166,667 per year inside linebacker David Harris, a fellow 2007 draftee, took to remain with the Jets two years ago could be a possibility. The 2013 sixth-round pick Vince Williams is waiting in the wings if Timmons departs. He signed a two-year, $5.75 million extension in the preseason.
Outside linebacker Jones has been a disappointment. The Steelers didn't pick up the fifth-year option in 2017 worth $8.369 million for the 2013 first-round pick. His days with the Steelers likely are over. Jones was given every opportunity to flourish but was consistently outplayed by 38-year-old James Harrison, who doesn't intend to call it quits. He is completing a two-year, $2.75 million contract. Although Harrison was second on the Steelers with 38 quarterback pressures (combined quarterback hits, quarterback hurries and sacks), only a modest financial investment will be required to keep him.
A much younger edge rusher needs to be found to pair with 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree, whether it's with the 30th overall pick in the upcoming draft or through free agency, regardless of what happens with Harrison.
Since pass rushers are paid a premium on the open market, it would be a huge departure for Pittsburgh to pursue Melvin Ingram or Nick Perry, who are expected to be hot free agents. Jabaal Sheard, who played collegiately at the University of Pittsburgh, should be more affordable but still more than Pittsburgh is accustomed to paying for outside talent.
Bryant coming back from his yearlong drug suspension would be a big boost to the passing game since he is one of the game's better deep threats. He is under contract through the 2018 season despite being a 2014 fourth round pick because his contract tolled with the lengthy suspension.
The Steelers got much more than they bargained for when signing Williams to a two-year, $4 million deal after he was released by the Carolina Panthers in March 2015. He nearly rushed for a 1,000 yards playing in place of an injured Bell during his first season in Pittsburgh. Williams, who turns 34 in April, started showing signs of age this season. He could be re-signed as an insurance policy for Bell at the same or less than his expiring contract while a ball carrier with fresh legs is found in the fairly deep running back draft class.
The Steelers are a safe bet to extend their streak without a losing season to 14 years because of their offensive prowess. They had a top 10 offense for the third straight season to go along with an improving pass defense, which jumped 14 spots from ranking 30th in the NFL in 2015 to 16th. The defense figures to get better as young players such as cornerback Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis, Dupree, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt gain more experience.
The future is now for the Steelers because Roethlisberger, who is nearly 35, has three years remaining on a contract running through the 2019 season. The Steelers must find out a way to get past Tom Brady and the Patriots in order to add to their record six Lombardi trophies.
The end of New England's supremacy of the AFC East doesn't appear to be in jeopardy anytime soon. The Steelers are now 1-4 in the postseason against the Patriots, including 0-3 in the AFC Championship. Pittsburgh's last Super Bowl victory came after the 2008 season.