ORLANDO, Fla. — Sitting at an outdoor table overlooking the pool at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes resort, Mike Tomlin looked relaxed, upbeat and without angst for a coach who has lost at least two players from three positions, including two of his top three wide receivers.
And why not?
Rather than focus on the players the Steelers have lost since the start of free agency earlier this month, Tomlin instead chose to caution that it is way too early to start worrying about the makeup of his roster or how the Steelers have changed since the end of the 2013 season.
“We’re talking about probably as many as 10 more people that could be on our football team that are not on our team as we sit here today,” Tomlin said Sunday at the NFL’s annual owners meetings, which begin today. “We’re still very much in the process of building for 2014.”
Making his first public comments since his season-ending news conference in late December, Tomlin touched on a variety of subjects, including the loss of several players at wide receiver, defensive line and linebacker, and the desire to find a veteran running back.
The Steelers already have signed three outside free agents — safety Mike Mitchell, defensive end Cam Thomas and wide receiver Lance Moore, who agreed to a two-year contract Friday — to replace some of their departed players. And they would like to add a veteran running back to back up Le’Veon Bell, a process that will continue Friday when former New England Patriots running back LaGarrette Blount will visit the South Side.
“We’ve had some real positive developments thus far,” Tomlin said. “Getting a young talented guy like Mike Mitchell and Cam Thomas was important to us; retaining Jason Worilds was important to us; getting Heath [Miller] and Troy [Polamalu] done from an extension standpoint was important for us.
“It’s still ongoing for us, but not that what’s going to happen is any less significant than the things I already mentioned. The things that we do moving forward — adding quality depth, insulating us against the unforeseen — is a big part of developing the type of team we need to be.”
The Steelers met last week with former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Tomlin said he “felt good” about the meeting and said “we’re open” to the possibility of signing him.
“We need to add quality depth to that position, whether it’s through free agency or the draft,” Tomlin said. “Le’Veon Bell is a talented player, but he’s also a young player. It would be good to get a been-there, done-that type of guy in the room to maybe help him with his growth and development, but I don’t view it as a necessity.”
Bell is the only running back from the 2013 53-man roster that is under contract. Jonathan Dwyer, who was an unrestricted agent, signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Felix Jones will not be brought back.
“We’re certainly aware we have only one NFL-experienced running back and he’s only got a year,” said general manager Kevin Colbert, who is attending the meetings. “We’re well aware of our depth and we’ll try to add to it.”
Colbert cited the example of receiver Jerricho Cotchery, whom the Steelers didn’t originally sign until Aug. 11, 2011, two weeks after training camp started.
“We’re not going to panic about having one veteran running back on our team at this point,” Colbert said.
The Steelers also lost two of their starting linebackers — veterans Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley — but not because of free agency. They released Woodley for salary-cap reasons after they signed Jason Worilds to a one-year transition tender of $9,725,000. And they released Foote because they did not believe he would make their team with young linebackers Sean Spence, Vince Williams and Terence Garvin on the roster.
Nonetheless, the loss of those players, who appeared in five Super Bowls between them, will cut into that unit’s experience. The old man of the group is Lawrence Timmons, 27.
“It is, but the guys that are here are going to be one more year experienced and we don’t expect those guys to stay the same,” Tomlin said. “Even though you’re losing some veteran leadership and experience with the loss of those two guys, and that’s significant — I’m not trying to underscore that — at the same time it’s important that we all recognize that we don’t expect those who remain to remain the same.”
When asked about the possibility of bringing back outside linebacker James Harrison, Colbert said: “We’re never going to close the door on any possibility, especially with a guy who was a huge part of your success. But we have to see what’s best for our team as we continue to go through this free-agent period. There might be other outside linebackers who can help us as well.”
In other developments:
• Colbert said Cam Thomas, who was signed from the San Diego Chargers, is a defensive end in the defense. But he did not discount Thomas might be tried at nose tackle.
• Tomlin said the draft is so deep there are more “A” players — “Guys who could go in the top three rounds,” he said — than any draft in recent memory. “It’s going to provide us an opportunity to get quality guys in all areas,” Tomlin said.
• Because of the amount of depth in the May draft, Colbert said the possibility of trading down in the first round “makes more sense in this draft than trading up.” But he added, “I’m sure everyone shares the same thought.”
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com, and Twitter @gerrydulac.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published March 23, 2014 4:38 PM