It's time to assess all 32 NFL clubs as we wait for league business to resume. Today, we take a closer look at the defending AFC-champion Steelers:
Top three story lines
1. Can the Steelers avoid a post-Super Bowl letdown? The last two times the Steelers missed the playoffs (2006, '09) came after making the Super Bowl. In '06, a poor start doomed Pittsburgh. Two years ago, a five-game losing streak derailed the Steelers' chances of repeating. Anything close to the Steelers' best should place them back in the postseason, but no club can overcome the sustained bouts of subpar play that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs in '06 and '09.
2. Will the Steelers be able to re-sign CB Ike Taylor? Taylor is the team's best cornerback. If he's back, the Steelers have a secondary they can win with, considering their scheme and the pass-rush pressure they generate. If he departs, the Steelers — not known for making big splashes in free agency — will need to consider adding a cornerback.
3. Who will play right tackle? Willie Colon, the team's best lineman in '09, missed last season with an Achilles tendon injury, and his contract is set to expire. Ex-Cowboy Flozell Adams, signed to fill in for Colon, played well. Adams' agent, Jordan Woy, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Adams, 36, wants to play in 2011. If Adams and Colon are back, will Colon move inside to one of the guard spots?
2011 free agency — whenever that happens
Unsigned players: DE Eugene Bright (1), OL Dorian Brooks (1), OT Willie Colon (5), S Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith (1), QB Dennis Dixon (3), DE Nick Eason (8), DE Chris Ellis (3), OG Trai Essex (6), LB Keyaron Fox (7), CB William Gay (4), WR Tyler Grisham (1), DT Ra'Shon Harris (2), CB Tuff Harris (3), OL Tony Hills (3), NT Chris Hoke (10), OL Kyle Jolly (1), P Jeremy Kapinos (2), OG-C Doug Legursky (2), CB Anthony Madison (5), RB Mewelde Moore (7), S Ryan Mundy (2), OT Jonathan Scott (4), P Daniel Sepulveda (4), TE Matt Spaeth (4), PK Shaun Suisham (5), RB Frank Summers (2), CB Ike Taylor (8), OL Greg Warren (6), OLB LaMarr Woodley (4, franchised). [Editor's note: The number after a player's name is his years of service in the league. If the NFL decides to go with free agency under the same rules as used in 2010, then a player would become a restricted free agent after three years and an unrestricted free agent after six years.]
Analysis: Taylor could find himself in demand in unrestricted free agency. Taylor is solid in coverage and does not shy away from contact. He's a very good fit in the Steelers' scheme, and replacing him would not be easy, especially if the offseason is further truncated because of the lockout. Colon's future in Pittsburgh is up in the air after missing an entire season and the lack of a new labor agreement. Hoke plays a tough position well and is one of the Steelers' underrated defensive performers. They figure to try and bring him back. Eason provides capable depth at end and could be re-signed. If Moore signs elsewhere, the Steelers might consider adding another pass-catching back to spell Rashard Mendenhall. Suisham was accurate after replacing Jeff Reed, and the Steelers are likely to try to re-sign him. Fox is a key special-teamer and a valuable backup whom Pittsburgh would likely attempt to bring back. Scott was serviceable replacing the injured Max Starks; if he returns, he'll provide solid depth. Sepulveda has suffered three ACL tears in his career but could be back after the Steelers didn't draft a punter. Gay is a solid nickel back who can start in a pinch. He could be back. Madison's special-teams prowess enhances his value. Dixon was tendered at the original-round level in restricted free agency, meaning a club would have to surrender just a fifth-round pick to sign him away. Finally, the Steelers are likely to retain Woodley for 2011 with the franchise tag; the question is, can they sign him long term?
2011 rookie class
First-round DE Cameron Heyward (No. 31 overall) — Strong at the point of attack, Heyward looks to be a solid fit in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme. Look for him to contribute as a reserve in Year One. Down the road, he's likely to move into the starting lineup, perhaps opposite of 2009 first-round pick Ziggy Hood.
Second-round OT Marcus Gilbert (No. 63 overall) — Gilbert has the size the Steelers like in their tackles but could stand to get stronger and tougher. He could be tried inside at guard.
Third-round CB Curtis Brown (No. 95 overall) — Brown is instinctive and athletic. He could contribute in "sub" packages as a rookie. The concerns with Brown are his strength and lack of interceptions at Texas (two in four seasons).
Fourth-round CB Cortez Allen (No. 128 overall) — Allen has intriguing size and speed. However, his skills need refinement. His contributions figure to come down the road.
Fifth-round OLB Chris Carter (No. 162 overall) — Carter, who played end at Fresno State, will move to outside linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme. He is athletic, tough and smart but lacks elite speed off the edge. He'll vie to make it on special teams and as a situational pass rusher in his first season.
Sixth-round OG Keith Williams (No. 196 overall) — Williams has good size but must be more consistent. He will compete to be a reserve in his first season.
Seventh-round RB Baron Batch (No. 232 overall) — Batch catches the ball well and will attempt to make the club as a backup. He seems most likely to stick if the team doesn't re-sign Mewelde Moore and/or the Steelers keep four running backs.
Lockout fallout: How impacted will the Steelers be by the work stoppage?
On a scale from 1 to 10, with one least-affected and 10 most-impacted, the Steelers rate a 3. With a strong veteran core of talent and no major changes coming to their defensive, offensive and special-teams schemes, they are positioned well to ride out the lockout and remain an AFC power once football resumes. Even if the lockout leads to sloppier play in 2011 — a real possibility — a club like Pittsburgh could regress less than most of its competition and still end up in a position of strength.