Aaron Smith has played 156 games over 12 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers since being selected in the fourth-round of the 1999 draft. He’s been a workhorse in their 3-4 defense and a vital cog in a system that requires him to sacrifice personal glory for the good of the team (though, that’s probably a cliche at this point regarding what he does, but it doesn’t make it any less true). As we sit today, he’s been one of the best all-around defensive ends in the NFL, a two-time Super Bowl Champion, and by nearly all accounts, one of the good guys.
Unfortunately, there’s also this harsh reality: he’s played in just 38 of a possible 71 games (playoffs included) over the past four seasons, and 11 of 35 over the past two. That leads to the inevitable questions of how much the Steelers can rely on him next season, and is it perhaps time to part ways with a player that’s been one of the best at his position over the past decade?
In past years, Smith’s absence led to grim results for the Steelers defense, as the bottom fell out of the run defense in 2007, resulting in Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor destroying them in two separate games at Heinz Field (including a playoff game), and a 9-7 mark in 2009, one year removed from a Super Bowl victory. This season, however, the Steelers defense, particularly its historically dominant run defense, never missed a beat, and that’s due in large part to the development of 2009 first-round pick Ziggy Hood. He had to grow up on the job, and he did just that.
I think, when healthy, Smith can still be a high-level player in the Steelers defense. But you also know the saying: it’s better to let a player go a year early as opposed to a year late. Smith’s replacement is already on the roster (Ziggy Hood) and ready for his opportunity to shine, while the Steelers still have Brett Keisel on the other side of the line and a capable backup that’s also steadily improved the past couple of years in Nick Eason. Depth beyond that might be an issue, but no more of an issue than it was this season, and it’s something that can always be addressed in free agency (whenever that happens) and the draft.
The other option, other than simply keeping him at his current salary or releasing him, is to see if Smith would be willing to come back at a reduced salary, but that’s something that needs to be a mutual decision. Both sides have to want it.
It’s a tough call, but one that’s going to have to be made at some point.