Steelers Free Agent Darrius Heyward Bey, Will He Stay or Go?

Most of the heavy lifting has been done by the Steelers 2015 Free Agent Focus in terms of its free agency preview. The would be and should be fates of the likes of James Harrison, Jason Worilds, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel have been discussed.

With that out of the way, we take a look at the remaining second line Steelers Free Agents, starting with the wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Capsule Profile of Darrius Heyward-Bey with the Steelers

The Steelers decision to sign Darrius Heyward-Bey turned some heads last year, if for no other reason than Heyward-Bey’s status as a being one of the top 7 players taken in the 2009 NFL Draft. And with Emmanuel Sanders departed for Denver and Jerricho Cotchery heeding the call to Carolina, Heyward-Bey seemed like a very interesting prospect.

Of course Markus Wheaton established himself as a starter as expected, and Martavis Bryant emerged as a stand out rookie, relegating Heyward-Bey to the role of spot duty receiver and special teams player.

  • Heyward-Bey did quite well on special teams notching 7 tackles.

Heyward-Bey didn’t make a lot of noise as a reciver, catching only 3 balls, but he only had 5 targets.

The Case for Keeping Darrius Heyward-Bey

The case for the Steelers keeping Darrius Heyward Bey is pretty simple: He’s fast, he integrated well into the locker room, he knows the system and he’s willing to play on special teams. He’ll also come cheap.

The Case Against Keeping Darrius Heyward-Bey

The fact that veterans like Jacoby Jones are already on the free agent market suggests that the Steelers can fill that roster spot with someone who can contribute more at a comparable contract and salary cap value.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Darrius Heyward-Bey

The Steelers have a lot of reasons to bring back Darrius Heyward-Bey, but really face no urgency to do so quickly. They can afford to shop the free agent market. If they can find someone who adds more bang for the same salary cap buck, then they should sign him. If not, Heyward-Bey’s a good fall back option.

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How Panthers Game Bring Steelers Salary Cap Choices into Perspective

Just how heavily are the Pittsburgh Steelers to pay for their salary cap management sins? A quick look at who appears, and doesn’t appear on the injury report suggests the Sunday night game vs. the Carolina Panthers could tell us a lot.

  • The key to successful salary cap management is to get the most bang for your buck.

If every team has the same amount to spend on players then the team that invests wisely will benefit the most on the field. In theory it is simple.

But unlike baseball, as portrayed in Money Ball, football players don’t have 162 games to give the number crunchers statistically valid samples. Which makes those types of cost-benefit calculations in the NFL more of an art than a science.

Which brings us to the Steelers injury report.

  • On it we find Steve McLendon, who is nursing a shoulder injury. Off it we find Lance Moore who nursed a groin injury during camp.

Those names figure prominently because both of them are tied to cost-benefit personnel decision the Steelers made this spring.

Woods, Thomas and Pitfalls of Trading Proven Performance for “Value”

If Steve McLendon can’t play and, for the record he is practicing (thank God), the proverbial “next man up” is Cam Thomas.

Thomas however, was not the Steelers first choice to back up McLendon. Pittsburgh had invested a lot in developing Al Woods and wanted him back. Al Woods wanted back. But Tennesse offered more, and Woods is now a Titan.

So the Steelers went out and signed Thomas. So far, that hasn’t worked out. Matt C. Steel of Steel City Insider went as far as to say this:

I’m seriously beginning to question the coaching staff’s ability to evaluate talent. How is it that they believed Thomas was worth a roster spot, let alone a stating spot along the line? I’m beginning to think the Steelers’ Defensive MVP the second half of last season was Al Woods. I bet they wished they gave him that extra million over two years now.

Steel has plenty of company. Dale Lolley has singled Thomas out multiple times for being a liability to the run defense. He and others such as BTSC’s Jeff Hartman argue that playing Stephon Tuitt would at least give the Notre Dame rookie some experience. So in pure football terms, Steel might be right.

  • But football needs don’t trump salary cap realities. 

The Steelers, forced to carry dead money from LaMarr Woodley and Willie Colon’s contract, and with multiple restructures by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Troy Polamalu, simply didn’t have the cap space to offer Woods an extra million.

  • The Steelers gambled that, for a little less, they could get comparable performance out of Thomas.

Thus far, that’s looking like a bad bet. Perhaps that will change with time.

Moore Cotchery Please!

Another player whom the Steelers wanted and who wanted to stay in Pittsburgh is Jerricho Cotchery. In 2013 Cotchery was a veritable touchdown catching machine, catching 10 touchdown passes out of 46 receptions.

  • Among fans and the press, Cotchery’s return was all but a given. 

When rumors surfaced about him being wood, reporters pointed out that he was on a Steelers fan cruise. As it turns out, cruise or no, salary cap realities once again reared their head. Carolina offered starting money. The Steeler couldn’t touch that.

  • So instead, they went out and signed Lance Moore.

On paper, Moore looks to provide more bang for less buck as the chart below details:

jerricho cotchery lance moore compared stats steelers receptions

The two men’s production is strikingly similar, with Cotchery getting the edge in yards per catch, while Moore has a higher percentages in Steel Curtain Rising’s home-grown amateur saber metric of “catches for touchdowns and games with a touchdown.”

  • But therein lies the rub.

Moore has missed two games already this year, Cotchery has started into. Salary cap dollars can’t deliver value while you’re on the bench. So while might have more paper value for Moore, in reality Cotchery’s actually producing for Carolina.

So if Moore does suit up Tuesday night, we’ll see if he can deliver where Justin Brown fell short, in the process open things up for Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton.

It will also be interesting to see how Cotchery holds up against Polamalu, Taylor, and Michael Mitchell – three other salary cap choices who helped force the Steelers into letting him go.

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Steelers Sign Lance Moore; How do Moore and Cotchery Stack Up Side-by-Side?

Jerricho Cotchery’s seat in Pittsburgh didn’t have much time to cool. Less than 24 hours after Cotchery cu and ran for Carolina, the Pittsburgh Steelers moved to replace him with Lance Moore, free agent wide out from New Orleans.

When Cotchery left, Steel Curtain Rising indicated that Pittsburgh was losing more than your average 3rd NFL wide receiver.

  • It appears that they might have replaced him with someone who is at least above average at the position.

Lance Moore broke into the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 2006. He didn’t make the team, but New Orleans picked him up. He had one reception in his rookie year, but steadily worked his way into a significant part of one of the NFL’s most potent offenses.

Moore comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers with 346 catches to his name for 4281 yards and 38 touchdowns. He also worked as an accomplished punt returner in 2010, although at age 31 those days would figure to be behind him.

But Moore also figures to bring something else to Pittsburgh beyond  the numbers, as Jack Finn of Behind the Steel Curtain observes:

His experience playing in a prolific offense with a Hall of Fame level quarterback should be of great use to the Steelers, not only on game days but in helping develop second year receivers Justin Brown and Marcus Wheaton, as well as third year receiver Derek Moye. A proven veteran in the film room and on the practice field can do a lot for the development of young players in terms of teaching and leadership.

As Neal Coolong, also of BTSC pointed out, Moore’s 2013 season in New Orleans was ruined by injuries and he found himself overlooked by Drew Brees when he got on the field, seeing his production drop by 60%.

But the Steeler s need both experience and depth at wide receiver, and Moore brings both.

Moore and Cotchery Compared

So how do Jerricho Cotchery and Lance Moore match up, side by side. Well, here’s a look:

cotchery moore career statistics receptions touchdowns yards
Jerricho Cotchery and Lance Moore Side by Side

In pure quantitative terms, Cotchery has the edge. But Cotchery also has two more seasons of experience on Moore and 43 more starts. In qualitative terms the comparison gets more interesting. Moore’s career yards per catch is 12.4 a hair lower that Cotchery’s who clocks in at 12.7. Moore has average 3.4 catches per game and 42.4 yards per game, which edges out Cotchery’s 3.0 catches per game and 38.3.

And, for some armature saber metrics.

  • Lance Moore has scored a touchdown in 37% of his games and 10% of his catches have been for TD’s
  • Jerricho Cotchery has scored a touchdown in 20% of his games and 7% of his catches have been for TD’s

These numbers don’t carry the depth that Pro Football Focus’s does, but then again, those guys get paid to do what they do.

So what do they really mean? Well, Cotchery’s role for the Steelers in 2013 was as “The guy who scores touchdowns.” Perhaps these numbers suggest that Moore is uniquely suited to take his place.

Ben Roethlisberger is said to covet another tall wide receiver. Another Plaxico Burress. Moore only stands 5’9″ so he doesn’t fit the bill.

But here’s betting that Ben will be happy with someone who comes up with it in the end zone.

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Why Jerricho Cotchery in Carolina Cuts so Deep in Pittsburgh

After some back and forth, news broke today that veteran free agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery is leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Carolina Panthers.

  • Cotchery is hardly the first player to defect, but his departure will hurt more than all the others thus far.

That’s not to devalue the potential contributions that the others could have made. Ziggy Hood knows the defensive system. Al Woods is just now growing into a legit NFL defensive end/nose tackle. David Johnson looked sharp before his injury. Jonathan Dwyer ran every carry as if it were his last. Emmanuel Sanders has shown he’s a quality number 2 NFL receiver, if not more.

  • But the Steelers can more easily replace what those men take with them.

What did Jerricho Cotchery do? To paraphrase what Buddy Ryan once said about Cris Carter “All he did was catch touchdowns.”

Cotchery and the Steelers, By the Numbers

There are two types of lies. Outright falsehoods and dam statistics. But in Cotchery’s numbers reveal a telling truth for the Steelers:

  • 13 – Cotchery is one of only 13 NFL 2013 receivers who broke double digits in TD’s
  • 5% — That’s puts him in the top 5% of NFL’s 2013 pass catchers in 2013
  • 24% — Cotchery’s share of the Steelers 2013 TD production
  • 13% — There’s that lucky numeral again, this time as his portion of Steelers 2013 receptions
  • 8 – Total number of receptions  by fullback Will Johnson in 2013
  • 8 –of Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye’s combined 2013 reception total

The Steelers plan is to replace Emmanuel Sanders with Markus Wheaton, and the plan might work. But the 1998 Steelers tried that with Will Blackwell. Memories of how that worked out (click here) likely colored their plans to keep Cotchery around as insurance.

  • Double digit touchdown figures in the NFL don’t happen by accident.

In 2004, a lot of Steelers fans took umbrage at Jerome Bettis stealing Duce Staley’s thunder by going in at goal line situations to score touchdowns. There’s a reason why it worked. Getting into the end zone is not easy, and Bill Cowher knew what he was doing in riding The Bus into the paint.

  • Cotchery’s 10 TD haul in 2013 arguably more impressive. 

Unless your name is Rodney Carter (see the 1989 Steelers), no one makes a career in the NFL out of “Going out and getting open.” Cotchery’s ability to come down with the ball 10 times in the end zone shows at a point in his career where he can combined ability with veteran savvy.

  • That veteran savvy will be missed elsewhere.

By all accounts the Steelers 2012 wide receiver room was a mess, absent Hines Ward. That’s the likely reason why Mike Tomlin replaced inexperienced Scotty Montgomery with Richard Mann, someone who exudes “Been there, done that.”

  • Even before Cotchery’s departure the Steelers were likely to take a wide out early in the 2014 NFL Draft. 

Cotchery could have severed as the perfect mentor. Antonio  Brown can serve that role to an extent, but he still has some maturing to do, as evidenced by his benching vs. New England and his reaction to not getting more throws from Ben Roethlisberger in the season finale vs. Cleveland.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers have of course weathered far worse losses than Jerricho Cotchery in their history.

They’ll weather this one too. But this is very much a team of younger players who are in the midst of delicate process that is known as “learning how to win.” And Jerricho Cotchery was a perfect mentor on that path. He will be missed.

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Maurice Jones-Drew Visits Steelers; Cotchery Undecided; Silverback to Return?

There’s one thing you’ve gotta love about the NFL off season:  The unpredictable rhythm of the news cycle. This is a sharp contrast to the regular season or even training camp, where they news cycle is defined by:

  • post game interviews
  • game debriefings
  • press conferences
  • injury reports
  • in-locker room visits
  • conference calls with out of town press
  • sit down chats with the TV crews

Then finally, there’s the game itself.

No such template exists for the NFL off season. It’s the wild west, where every agent is a bounty hunter, every player a claims speculator, every reporter a saloon keeper, and every general manger a would-be county sherriff desperate to instill order.

Such it was that James Starks never made the vist that was “promised” to Pittsburgh, Jerricho Cotchery left the Steelers cruise in search of a contract with Carolina and not the South Side, Lance Moore arrived for his Tuesday visit on Wednesday and Maurice Jones-Drew showed up “unannounced at the South Side.” Jones-Drew would give the Steelers the veteran back up they’ve been seeking for Le’Veon Bell in the wake of Jonathan Dwyer’s departure.

He and Moore also left the South Side without contract offers, if reports are to be believed. And as of 11:00 pm eastern on March 19th, Jerricho Cotchery had still not made up his mind between competing offers from Carolina and Pittsburgh.

  • And the biggest news didn’t even involve any of the above.

Last week James Harrison was cut by the Bengals. Later this week he was interviewed and asked where he’d like to finish his career.

  • Debo wants to finish his career with the Steelers

And he’s not talking about one of the one day contract signings that are now in vogue. Harrison wants to play, and reports are that the Steelers are seriously considering welcoming him back.

This amounts to a very large turn about for the franchise, who cut Harrison a year ago, and then said “thanks but no thanks” when Harrison indicated he wanted back on the team after  finding little interest on the free agent market.

Suffice to say, Steel Curtain Rising will be monitoring this story as it develops.

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Packers Beat Steelers to Punch on Starks; Cotchery Staying in Carolina….?

Veteran depth for the Steelers at the skill positions, namely wide receiver and running back, continues to run thin. So do Pittsburgh’s options for handling it. Word broke over the weekend that Pittsburgh would host New Orleans Saints wide out Lance Moore and Green Bay Packers running back James Starks.

Green Bay at least packed more of a punch than Pittsburgh:

That was only the beginning of the bad news. Jerricho Cotchery figured large in the Steelers plans even before Emmanuel Sanders departure. However, the story that Cotchery was on a Steelers sponsored cruise was quickly followed by indications that the wide out was headed to receiver starved Carolina.

Unfortunately for Steelers Nation, things are apparently going well there for Cotchery:

In fact, ESPN reporter David Newton predicted that the Panthers would not let Jerricho Cotchery leave without a contract.

The Steelers options for adding veteran depth at running back and wide receiver are getting sparse. James Jones had had interest in signing with Pittsburgh, but opted for Oakland instead, taking another available option off of the market.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Guy Whimper Re-Ups with Pittsburgh

After a week which saw them lose Jonathan Dwyer, David Johnson, Al Woods, Ziggy Hood and Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers began week 2 of NFL Free Agency by resigning one of their own.

  • Except it wasn’t the one Steelers Nation was hoping for.

When word broke that Jerricho Cotchery would end his Steelers cruise by going to Carolina Steelers fans feared the worst. And yes, the worst may indeed come to pass. The Steelers acknowledge as much with their decision to entertain Lance Moore of the New Orleans Saints.

The player that the Steelers resigned is none other than Guy Whimper, the offensive lineman that Steelers Nation spent the 2013 off season dreading seeing in action. As fate would have it, Whimper did see action in the regular season. He wasn’t spectacular.

Perhaps “solid” would be too strong a word. His performance was serviceable and that was enough for the Steelers to give him a shot at a roster spot in 2014.

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Jerricho Cotchery – The Catalyst in Assessing Impact of Emmanuel Sanders Departure

The loss of Emmanuel Sanders was not unexpected. To that end, Ed Bouchette’s tweet says it all:

  • You can’t retain someone you never make an offer to.

But “Expected” doesn’t mean “without consequences” as Emmanuel Sanders departure leaves the Steelers with almost zero experienced depth at wide receiver behind Antonio Brown. Big things are expected of Markus Wheaton. That’s all well and good.

Entering the 1997 NFL Draft Tom Donahoe had Yancey Thigpen’s impending free agency in mind. He drafted Blackwell in the second round with an eye toward replacing Thigpen with Blackwell in 1998. Blackwell had 23 receptions for 149 yards and no touchdowns in 14 games as the 4th wide receiver in 1997.

  • For comparison’s sake, Wheaton had 6 catches for 64 yards in 12 games.

As expected, Yancey Thigpen departed to as the Tennessee Titans took their turn at overpaying departing Steelers free agents.  So far, so good. However, come summer at St. Vincents things did not go according to plan. Will Blackwell failed to win the starting job in training camp.

(Editorial aside – Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower has been a frequent critic of Bob Smizik, yet to his credit he sounded the alarm bell on Blackwell early.)

  • In fact, during 5 years with the Steelers Will Blackwell only started  two games.

None of this of course means that Markus Wheaton is doomed to failure. Far from it. But it does underline that precarious nature of counting on players to make a significant jump from their rookie to sophomore seasons.

In the case of Will Blackwell, the Steelers had a backstop of sorts, in the from of Courtney Hawkins.

  • Hawkins had been brought in as a third wide receiver but did a serviceable job as a starter.

And with Jerricho Cotchery in the fold, the 2014 Steelers would have (had?) a far sturdier backstop than the 1998 Steelers had in Hawkins. Emmanuel Sanders could have served that role as well, although Sanders final deal with Denver shows that he clearly was expecting and getting offered the kind of money that you don’t pay a third wide receiver.

Should the Steelers lose Cotchery, a very realistic possibility, they essentially leave themselves with a budding super start at wide out, an unknown second year player, Derek Moye who only dressed for eight games. The Steelers are said to be planning to draft Ben Roethlisberger a tall wide out early in the 2014 NFL Draft, but counting on a rookie is less advisable than a second year man.

Steel Curtain Rising entered the 2013 off season saying that the Steelers should lock down Sanders to a long-term deal while he was cheap.

  • This faith in Sanders was justified by his play as a rookie and his play during the first half of 2012, when he in many ways looked like a young Hines Ward.

While Sanders play in 2013 in his first year as a starter was solid, he did nothing to conjure images of Ward. In that light letting the Denver Broncos pay him 6 million dollars a year looks like a wise decision on the part of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.

But if Jerricho Cotchery bolts to Carolina, the cost of losing Sanders increases significantly.

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Conscious of Cotchery’s Carolina Visit, Steelers to Host Lace Moore and James Starks

Already having lost Jonathan Dwyer and facing the impending defection of Jerricho Cotchery to Carolina, the Pittsburgh Steelers are planning visits of Green Bay running back James Starks and New Orleans wide receiver Lance Moore.

Jonathan Dwyer’s free agent status in Pittsburgh was an unknown when the signing period began, and he was not expected to attract a lot of attention. He most certainly didn’t, but Dwyer did accept an offer to rejoin Bruce Arians in Pittsburgh West, aka Arizona.

In contrast, Jerricho Cotchery was expected to resign with the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the Carolina Pathers receiving corps has been ravaged. They recently cut Steve Smith, and the contact Smith signed with the Baltimore Ravens is likely driving up Cotchery’s value.

  • Cotchery will be 32 by opening day, and knows full well his next contract could be his last.

While Cotchery has played in Pittsburgh for a minimal salary during the last two years, he’s understandably looking for a bigger pay day and Carolina will likely offer more than Pittsburgh.

Cotchery’s Carolina visit is undoubtedly driving the Steelers interest in Moore, but as Behind the Steel Curtain Editor Neal Coolong observes, Moore has many unwelcome attributes of recent Steelers wide receivers – namely age above 30, injury history and lack of height (ever since Plaxico Burress left in 2004, Ben Roethlisberger has been on record saying he wants a “tall receiver.”)

James Starks is a more enticing prospect. He’s a career backup who, after a glance at his numbers, fits the Mewelde Moore mold. At age 28 he’s played in 35 NFL games but only started 2, but has averaged 4.4 yards a carry, including 47 yards in 10 carries in the Steelers 2013 defeat of the Packers.

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Steelers Say “So Long” to Sanders; Jerricho Cotchery Next?

What a long strange trip it’s been. Departed and would be free agents have given the scribes in Steelers Nation more than their share of story material since 1993.

One year ago he was a restricted free agent and, like Jerroll Williams before him, he got a seemingly artificially high one-year contract. Then followed the conclusion over whether the offer was on the table. When it finally materialized, the Steelers weren’t going to match it, then they did.

Following that Sanders began the season as a starter, something which had been envisioned for him since the Steelers drafted him in third round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

  • Sanders had his best season as a pro. He made a lot of good catches. 

But he was nothing spectacular. The Steelers were not going to commit big money to him and allowed Sanders to test the market. He did that. And then some.

Sanders visited with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He then visited with the Kansas City Chiefs. And then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He arranged a visit with the San Francisco 49ers.

  • Unbeknownst to Tampa Bay and San Francisco, Sanders had verbally accepted an offer from the Chiefs, which he and his agent Steve Weinberg  used to shop around with other NFL teams.

Word was that Sanders injury history was a sticking point. ESPN’s Scott Brown even suggested a possible return to Pittsburgh. Perhaps that was the case but so was his wheeling and dealing.

Sanders ultimately signed a 3 year 18 million dollar deal with the Denver Broncos.

Sanders Only the Steelers First WR Loss?

News that Sanders had finally signed no sooner broke than did word that Jerricho Cotchery was going to visit the Carolina Panthers.

Jerrhico Cotchery’s return to Pittsburgh had almost been a given. Most expected it to happen before the free agent signing period started. It didn’t. After it started, word was the Steelers had opened talks with the wide out. Still, no deal materialized.

  • Then Dale Lolley pointed out that Cotchery had been on the Steelers sponsored cruise. 

The news reassured some, but Lolly’s logic that Cotchery couldn’t get a contract while on a cruise seemed flawed given the age we live in. The Steelers appear to be bracing for another loss, or at least doing their due diligence, because New Orleans Lance Moore is scheduled to visit the South Side on Tuesday.

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