What Should the Steelers Do With Aaron Smith?

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.

This entry was posted in 2010 steelers, Defensive Line, Front Office and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • GlennW

    If a salary cap is put back in place for 2011, Aaron’s Smith’s cap hit is again $6m+ as it was in 2010 *and* we other budgetary issues, I think you have to think long and hard about cutting Smith if he doesn’t accept re-negotiation. But if there’s minimal cap impact then balancing time at DE between Smith, Keisel and Ziggy Hood is only a good problem to have. 2011 (Smith’s last contracted season) is likely the end of the line though, sadly…

  • Anonymous

    Aaron Smith will know when it’s time. He won’t need more than the smallest of hints.

    Can’t believe he’ll go elsewhere.

    Whether he’ll stay as a backup at a reduced salary, it’s hard to say. I get the impression he doesn’t define himself purely as a football player.

    I’d like to have him for one more year, just in case.

    I guess I have just restated the question. LOL!

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/100857546184516732260 Dr Obvious

    I would really hope he is able to stick around for another year or two as a back up / alternate that sees maybe a dozen snaps a game. I don’t think Eason is a long term solution, as he’s around 30 now himself. I hope we draft some youth along the D line and that Smith stays around until we find out if they are going to stick.

  • DC in ATL

    Heresy! Burn this site down!

    A good question actually. The Steelers are getting older on defense and need to bring in some young talent. Keeping Smith may force Hoke or Eason out with the hope that Steve McClendon, Sonny Harris off the practice squad or some high draft pick can step up and start contributing.

    I like the idea of Smith becoming the primary back-up at all three spots of the D-Line (have to believe he could fill in for Hampton if need be). It would allow him to get enough rest to stay healthy and productive in what could be his last season.

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  • RoB D

    As a big Smith fan, I think he shouldn’t be a starter if he can’t beat out Ziggy. He’d be one of the best backups in the league if he wants to stay on in that capacity. I don’t believe in Sunny Harris or McLendon..Harris is one of the most overhyped “just a guy” players in Steeler history for instance. If Smith retires, it will probably be because he thinks Ziffy has arrived (and his comments seem to indicate that he does) I’d love to have Aaron in a reduced capacity rather than starting for another team (I think he’d get lots of offers) I guess we”ll see but time waits for noone.

  • Steeler Stan

    As much as I’ve appreciated Smith’s contributions over the years I think its pretty clear that he should consider retirement. No one is going to give him a big contract this year knowing how unlikely it is that he’ll be around for the playoff stretch. If he were to stay, it would create an uncomfortable situation in relation to Hood too.

    The one thing that keeps occurring to me is that, with Woodley and Hampton as free agents, the team could actually jump to a 4-3 defense now. Timmons gets moved to OLB and the line is Hood, Smith, Hoke and Keisel. Hood or Smith could both play DT. You might even flip Harrison over to the strongside. Its really the only way it would make sense to keep Smith.

    No one knows what the new CBA will look like but if its similar to the old salary cap system, its either this or keep the same defense, lose Smith and maybe Woodley for salary cap reasons, and overpay Hampton and hope he can continue for a few more years.

    • JCRODRIGUEZ

      I would REALLY hate going that way and switching schemes on defense, that will certainly waste one or two seasons on adjustments on both the way the roster is built and the coaching staff structure, obviously the would mean to unload now Casey, Aaron, Farrior, Foote, Hoke, Eason for sure, and probably losing Harrison, Woodley and Timmons due to poor fit for a base 4-3 alignment.

  • Mike L

    THE DEMISE OF AARON SMITH HAS BEEN GREATLY EXAGGRRATED!! Yes, he has been injury more games than played in the past two seasons and based on that restructuring his last year into an incentive based contract would be beneficial. His play early this year was great, IIRC the Steelers run D was under 2.7 ypc with Smith and finished just over 3. With an 18 game schedule seeming to be unavoidable teams will need more depth and have to rotate players more often and will have more roster spots available. I went back and looked at JJ’s analyzing Ziggy Hood against the Bengals, points he made: the Bengals only had 5 plays w/o 3 wide receivers, and Ziggy looked gassed at the end because of so many plays. Smith’s contract is very reworkable, 1.5 million is paid signing bonus against the cap, the rest can be turned into incentives based on % games played and snaps per game. It is always good to have depth because when you don’t is when disaster strikes. When you do, you draft a future 3rd wideout and good special teams players. The Colts are currently looking to rework another injured players contract, Bob Sanders, so this is not out of the ordinary.

  • Dean Keaton

    I think (hope) that Smith will be willing to take a pay cut and reduced playing time to stay on the team. We have DE injuries all the time, and not just Smith, so it wouldn’t be a bad investment to pay him top backup $. That would allow the FO to put more emphasis on finding DB talent and maybe a younger DT or DE to develop while Smith, Eason, and Hoke back up the starters for the next year or two.

  • Tiger6123

    If you are going free agent you might as well keep him nobody our there is better. Draft a young guy that can take over in two years let Smith show him the ropes and then release him. I would say Smith would be ok with that