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In the midst of a heavily publicized shakeup in Baltimore, how will the critical losses in Pittsburgh affect the battle in the AFC North?
We're all well aware of the free agency shakeup going down in Baltimore, resulting in the losses of a number of starters from the 2012 championship roster. Losses that, in my opinion, should be easier to overcome than most seem to think for a battle-tested Raven team. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the Steelers are facing a pretty significant shakeup of their own. A number of starters have departed from a Pittsburgh team that had already begun, in the eyes of many, to slip from the ranks of the elite.
It was perhaps already a foregone conclusion that wide receiver Mike Wallace was not going to get the contract he wanted from the Steelers, but the void he will leave behind cannot be ignored. Wallace is a gamebreaker whose elite speed gave Pittsburgh the ability to stretch the field and take pressure off of the running game and the rest of the receiving corps. Emmanuel Sanders is also a restricted free agent and his potential departure would leave the Steelers with one less experienced receiver to help step up and fill the void. While Rashard Mendenhall was inactive for the majority of 2012, his departure leaves Pittsburgh without any sort of feature back. It will be up to a largely unproven stable of running backs, including Isaac Redman (also a restricted free agent) and Jonathan Dwyer.
On the defensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh will be tasked with replacing two starters in cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker James Harrison. Harrison's career seems to be on a downward slope after missing three games in 2012 and recording only 6 sacks, but Harrison's value cannot be simply be measured in statistics. He played with a rare intensity and was a leader on that defense, both on the field and in the locker room. At the moment, his apparent replacement will be Jason Worilds, who is entering his 4th year in the league after recording 5 sacks in 2012. The loss of Keenan Lewis should not be nearly as impactful as Harrison, but it is a hole to fill nonetheless.
The Steelers have been largely inactive in free agency so far, adding only a backup quarterback in Bruce Gradkowski and a second tight end in Matt Spaeth. They also managed to resign linebacker Larry Foote, who has spent his entire 11-year career in Pittsburgh. The Steelers' reluctance to add players via free agency indicates that they intend to focus on getting younger through the draft. The upcoming draft could very well be the most important draft in recent history for the Steelers and will almost certainly have a significant impact on the team's fortunes in 2013