1. Mike Adams, OT – The team’s Rookie of the Year was the starting right tackle for 5½ games, during which the Steelers averaged 4.5 per rush (3.2 the rest of the season). Adams injured his left ankle during the third quarter at Cleveland and missed the rest of the season. After the Browns game, the Steelers ranked 17th in the league in rushing – their high point of the season – but finished 26th. According to STATS Inc., Adams allowed a team-high 5 sacks, but was penalized only twice for 15 yards. According to one report, Adams will start at right tackle next season.
2. Cortez Allen, CB – Started three of the final four games in place of an injured Ike Taylor, and on a team starved for turnovers Allen caused five in the final two games. Overall, the second-year nickel back led the Steelers with 3 forced fumbles, and combined with his 2 interceptions and 1 fumble recovery Allen tied Lawrence Timmons for the team lead with 6 defensive “splash plays” on only 56 percent of Timmons’ team-high 1,013 defensive snaps. That’s the kind of production that could allow the Steelers to let Keenan Lewis move on in free agency.
3. Will Allen, S – His third season with the Steelers was his best as Allen started seven games in place of Troy Polamalu at strong safety. The Steelers were 4-3 in those games. Allen’s 432 snaps were second at safety to Ryan Clark, and even though Allen made only 4 special-teams tackles he was the unit’s captain for the final two games. An unrestricted free agent, Allen will turn 31 in June. He’ll be a 10th-year vet and would likely need to sign a one-year minimum-wage deal to remain with the Steelers.
4. Baron Batch, RB – A coach’s kind of player, Batch has shown he can do everything except produce as a runner. His 3.0 per-carry average in the preseason fell to 2.0 on a 25-for-49 performance in the regular season. But because of the release of Chris Rainey, and the pending free agency of the other three halfbacks on the roster, Batch will likely be kept for a third season as an exclusive-rights free agent for $480,000.
5. Charlie Batch, QB – The perennial No. 3 appeared to have finally moved past Byron Leftwich on the depth chart when both reserve QBs were healthy at the end of the season. Batch turned 38 in December, three days after leading the Steelers to a 23-20 win at Baltimore. In that game, Batch completed 25 of 36 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown in an upset of the AFC champs. The previous week, Batch started in the loss at Cleveland and threw one long incompletion 56 yards. It would’ve traveled 60 had it not hit the Browns’ safety in the helmet. So Batch still has his tools, and could very well re-sign as a free agent for a 16th NFL season.
6. Kelvin Beachum, OL – The Steelers’ final draft pick (248th out of the league’s 253 drafted players), Beachum was a rookie surprise as he started the final five games and allowed only 2.75 sacks, according to STATS Inc. But the 303-pounder struggled in the run game. After replacing Adams at Cleveland, and up until his third-quarter concussion in the finale, the Steelers averaged only 3.2 yards per carry with Beachum at right tackle. But it was a fine start for the rookie with the master’s degree from SMU, who could possibly find a home at left guard next season.
7. Antonio Brown, WR – It wasn’t the kind of season anyone envisioned for the third-year player coming off a Pro Bowl appearance. Brown missed three games and struggled through a few more with a sprained left ankle suffered in Game 8. He caught 66 passes and dropped only 4, but fourth-quarter fumbles at Oakland and Dallas allowed both home teams to rally for wins. Those may have been the difference between drafting 17th and making a Ravens-like playoff run.
8. Curtis Brown, CB – A third-round pick in 2011, Brown led the Steelers in special-teams tackles (18) for the second consecutive season. He also took snaps in the secondary for the first time, and moved up to nickel back after the injury to Taylor. But Brown’s first full game as a nickel back, against San Diego, went so badly that he was yanked in the second half for Josh Victorian, who had been cut from the practice squad only two weeks earlier. Brown was then passed over for Victorian as the starter the following week in place of the injured Cortez Allen. Brown did continue to see time in the secondary and broke up his first pass in Game 16.
9. Plaxico Burress, WR – Signed Nov. 20, Burress started Nov. 25 at Cleveland and the 25-yard pass interference penalty he drew at the 1-yard line late in the first half set up a touchdown and a halftime lead. Burress also converted a third-and-11 and a third-and-10 (touchdown) in two other starts as he began to regain his old chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger. It’ll be interesting to see if the Steelers sign the free agent who’ll turn 36 before next season. The cap hit for a veteran player in a one-year deal is only $555,000, or $150,000 more than the rookie minimum wage.
10. Drew Butler, P – Rookie finished with a gross average of 43.8 and a net of 37.8, which were topped by Steelers punters in 2011 and 2010, but one would have to go back to Josh Miller’s 1999 season for better numbers prior to 2010.
11. Chris Carter, OLB – It wasn’t just the abdominal injury (that forced him to IR on Nov. 15) causing his disappointing season. It was a stellar training camp in which the coaching staff raved about his improvement as a second-year pass-rusher that set up the letdown. Carter started the first three games in place of James Harrison, and then saw time on the other side due to LaMarr Woodley’s injury struggles, and could muster only 2 quarterback pressures (no sacks) in his 104 snaps. Carter will contend for the starting job should the team say goodbye to Harrison.
12. Justin Cheadle, OG – Was signed to the Steelers’ practice squad on Nov. 28 and added to the futures roster after the season. Cheadle was a three-year starter at right guard at Cal, where he won awards for academics, weightlifting and improvement. He signed with the Chiefs after the 2012 draft, was cut in August, and then spent time last season on the Packers’ practice squad. Is the nephew of three former major-college football players, including John Tarver, who played in the NFL for four seasons.
13. Ryan Clark, FS – Even though he missed the opener in Denver and half the Washington game with a concussion, Clark turned in perhaps his best pro season with 106 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery. Clark enters the final year of his contract with a $3.5 million salary, and could be in line for a slight extension as a form of cap relief. He’ll turn 34 on Oct. 12.
14. Willie Colon, LG – His future with the Steelers is in doubt after finishing a third consecutive season on injured reserve, this time from a knee injury suffered in practice the week of the Nov. 25 Cleveland game. Colon returned to play against San Diego, but struggled mightily and left in the second quarter, finished for the year. His run blocking and leadership were important to the team, but his 7 holding penalties in 11 games were one more than the rest of the Steelers’ linemen combined for in 2012. Cutting the injury-plagued leader before the March 12 fiscal new year would save the Steelers only $1.2 million, but it’s probably where they’re headed.
15. Jerricho Cotchery, WR – In the final game of his second season with the Steelers, Cotchery made his first start with the team and caught 2 passes for 21 yards. Was it a going away present for a veteran who’ll turn 31 in June? Cotchery caught 17 passes for 205 yards and had only one drop. He’s also a class act in the locker room, and one of only five receivers on the roster. He will make $1 million in salary, which is only $45,000 more than the 36-year-old Burress, but would count $450,000 more against the cap. Those are the facts through which the Steelers must sort in the next seven weeks.
16. Damon Cromartie-Smith, S – Was activated from the practice squad for the finale and will compete with Robert Golden – and most likely a rookie or two from a deep crop of safety draft prospects – for a job next season. Cromartie-Smith is no longer eligible for the practice squad.