After the Steelers started the season a league-best 11-0, they eventually slowed up, before dragging to a 12-4 finish after dropping four of their last five games. Along the way, the Steelers had their fair share of adversity this season, with situations like their bye week essentially being taken away from them early in the season, having to play a game for 13 straight weeks, and having to play three games in a span of twelve days. Regardless, these situations don’t give a team any bonus points in games and because of that, these cannot be used to excuse the losses.
It cannot be used to explain why this team was ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards. Over their last 6 games, including the playoffs, the Steelers averaged a total of 52.2 rushing yards per game. As a result, this resulted in offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner finally being fired after two seasons in charge. It is now rumored that the Steelers could promote QB coach Matt Canada to be their offensive coordinator. This hire would be a very Steelers like move, to promote from within, instead of looking at outside candidates. However, nothing has been confirmed as of yet, so that is something to keep a close eye on, as their offense has to improve significantly next season if they want to see success. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the Steelers will face in this potentially franchise altering offseason, and some of the moves they may end up making.
Steelers’ Salary Cap Position
As of January 20th 2021, the Pittsburgh Steelers are over the league salary cap by $21,988,664, and that’s something that needs to be addressed immediately if they want to do anything this offseason. A report came out saying people within the Pittsburgh Steelers organization have a growing sense that Ben Roethlisberger will return to the Steelers next season. If Roethlisberger does indeed come back next season, the salary cap will get much more difficult to work with if they want to improve the team. The Steelers could work on restructuring Roethlisberger’s current deal in order to free up some cap space. If Roethlisberger ends up retiring or is released, that would create $19 million in cap space for the Steelers.
The Steelers can create more cap space this offseason by moving on from some current players on their roster. The first player would be TE Vance McDonald, who would clear up $5.2 million in cap space by letting him go. TE Eric Ebron had his ups and downs in his first season this past year with the Steelers. However, by releasing Ebron, the Steelers would create an additional $6 million in cap space. Long time Steelers’ Pro-Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is split on possibly retiring this offseason. If Pouncey was to retire, it would save the Steelers $8 million. With Pouncey’s performance and injuries in the last two seasons, it wouldn’t be out of the question to release him if he didn’t retire. Another veteran the Steelers could potentially move on from could be CB Joe Haden. By cutting Haden, the Steelers would open up an additional $7 million in cap space. LB Vince Williams could be another name that we see the Steelers move on from this offseason, as it would create $4 million in cap space.
By releasing all of the players mentioned, the Steelers would have a salary cap of $8,211,336 if Roethlisberger remained on the Steelers’ roster, and $27,211,336 in cap space without Roethlisberger on the Steelers’ roster. With the potential to restructure players like Cameron Heyward’s and Stephon Tuitt’s contracts, the salary cap could increase even more, giving the Steelers more options moving forward.
Steelers’ Impending Free Agents
The Steelers free agent class is headlined WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, LT Alejandro Villanueva, OLB Bud Dupree, CB Mike Hilton, RB James Conner and CB Cameron Sutton. Overall, there are 25 impending free agents from this season’s Steeles roster, and it’s very likely a good portion of these impending free agents end up on new teams once free agency rolls around. With both OLB T.J. Watt and FS Minkah Fitzpatrick being due for new contracts next offseason, extending them will likely be higher up on the Steelers list of priorities.
Sadly, OLB Bud Dupree going to a new team is a foregone conclusion as Pittsburgh won’t be able to give him the money he deserves. Unless Dupree takes a significant discount to return to Pittsburgh, which would difficult enough in it’s own right, he won’t be a Steeler. The hometown story of James Conner is one that no one will ever forget. Unfortunately, it most likely won’t continue as, injuries and lack of consistency will see Conner going elsewhere unless a discount is given to Pittsburgh.
LT Alejandro Villanueva is going to be 33 next season, and towards the end of the season his play began to show it with his struggles. Head Coach Mike Tomlin even said so when asked if he was concerned about Villanueva’s performance against the Bengals and he said, “… it was concerning yesterday.” Villanueva will also be demanding a big portion of the remaining cap space, and therefore is unlikely to be brought back. Matt Feiler is another free agent lineman who has had better days for the Steelers. He will likely get paid more than he is actually worth, and with the Steelers current salary cap situation, it makes sense to let him walk.
CBs Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton are two pieces that the Steelers would most likely look to resign, but it’s unlikely that both will return to the team next season. Hilton serves as a slot corner for the Steelers and is able to make an impact in the run game, while Sutton is a more versatile piece in the secondary for the Steelers. The Steelers should look to bring back the younger Sutton first, and afterwards see if Hilton would return on a team friendly deal. Staying with the defense, LB Avery Williamson is someone that the Steelers were able to pickup at the trade deadline, and if they could retain him at a low cost, look for them to resign him to a 1-3 year deal this offseason.
LB Robert Spillane, WR/KR/PR Ray-Ray McCloud, OT Zach Banner, OLB Olasunkanmi Adenine are some of the free agents that the Steelers should be able to resign, as they won’t take up much of their cap space and would be serviceable to the team in depth. When Devin Bush went down, Robert Spillane did whatever he could to fill in and was everywhere on the field. With that being said, Spillane should be brought back to work along side Bush or be used as depth. McCloud is one of the best return specialists the Steelers have had in a while, so to retain him for cheap is a no-brainer. Banner was slotted into be the starting RT before a torn ACL in Week 1 ended his season, so why not bring Banner back to compete and possibly start next season. Adenine will be a cheap contract to bring back who can contribute on special teams and possibly even at the OLB position with Dupree unable to be brought back.
The biggest name due to become a free agent for the Steelers is JuJu Smith-Schuster and everyone, including JuJu, knows it. Prior to this, Smith-Schuster had been saying he wants to return to Pittsburgh, so did something change? Never the less, Roethlisberger reportedly said that he wants JuJu back with him in Pittsburgh next season. This now puts the team in a tougher situation than before because they could potentially ruin the team’s future cap situation by trying to appease their long time franchise QB who is near the end of his run. If JuJu was to take a team friendly deal, it would make it possible for the Steelers to bring him back, but it would still be difficult for the Steelers and JuJu to come to a mutually friendly deal. The likely end will feature Smith-Schuster wear a new teams jersey next season sadly.
Steelers’ Free Agency
If the Steelers were to make any free agent signings this offseason, they wouldn’t be splash signings, rather low price signings for depth. The best possible scenario for the Steelers is a far fetched one, but it would end with the three Watt brothers in Pittsburgh. With the Houston Texans being in shambles and over the salary cap, they need to do something, and by cutting their five time All-Pro DE J.J. Watt, they would clear $17.5 million. With Watt’s comments about the lack of professionalism within the Texans organization, it looks like he has had enough in Houston and wants out. When it comes to the issue of paying the oldest Watt brother, with all of his investment and previous contracts in the NFL, J.J. could take a cheap deal to come play with his brothers in Pittsburgh. Other than the long shot of adding J.J. Watt to the team, there is little to no realistic options that would bring a big named player to the Steelers. They could look for veteran players in free agency like former Steeler RT Kelvin Beachum, who would provide some depth and starter potential for a season. Overall, it would be cheap, low risk/high reward type players that the Steelers would go after in free agency.
This draft for the Steelers could go many different ways depending on how they are looking at next season. If they feel that they will be able to contend, then they would look towards getting some talent for Ben Roethlisberger in his last seasons with the team. However, this could hurt the team in the future if they don’t look to do what is best for the organization for the long term, as well as now. The Steelers have to realize that Big Ben isn’t the same guy that he used to be, and father time doesn’t stop for anyone. They also don’t have the ability to surround Ben with the talent that will prolong his career, and because of that they have to look towards the future if the opportunity arises. In the past when the Steelers have drafted QBs, Ben hasn’t reacted the best. When the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in the third round in 2018, Ben made it public that he was surprised with the selection and not a fan of it. The Steelers can’t be concerned with the potential for a reaction by Ben if they see a QB prospect they fall in love with and want to move up to get him for the right price.
QB Trey Lance from North Dakota State University is just the type of player that the Steelers could trade up to grab in this year’s upcoming NFL Draft. If Roethlisberger intends on playing next season then this wouldn’t ruin anything, rather it would give Lance the chance to continue to develop, as he has a small sample size of playing just 17 games in college due to COVID. If the Steelers were to draft Lance, they would have to bring in a QB coach that would be able to develop him, much like Josh Allen was developed in Buffalo over the last three years. Lance has things that are unteachable with his athletic ability and arm strength, which make Lance a desirable QB this high for the Steelers. Lance could reach his full potential by developing his mechanics, not sticking to his first read, being able to read defenses better, and improving his pocket presence. However, if given a year or two to develop behind Roethlisberger, Lance could be able to maximize his potential with the Steelers
The Steelers could also consider going with a running back early in this years draft. Running backs like Najee Harris, Alabama and Travis Etienne, Clemson could be two good options if the Steelers were looking to target the position in the first round. Harris is a bigger back who is a power runner with some speed, while Etienne is more of a finesse and pass catching back. If the Steelers opt to wait, RBs like Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon, or Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard could be great options for the team.
The Steelers should then look to draft offensive lineman to protect their current and future QBs. Some potential options in the second through fourth rounds for the Steelers could be OT/G Trey Smith, Tennessee, OT Jalen Mayfield, Michigan, OT Walker Little, Stanford, OT/G Jackson Carman, Clemson, OT Dillon Radunz, North Dakota State University or C/G Landon Dickerson, Alabama.
When all is said and done, this will end up being a monumental offseason for the Steelers. The Big Ben era is coming to an end soon, and the Steelers are faced with a decision to try to maximize his title window, or start building for the future. Time will soon tell which option the Steelers take, but either way, the implications of this offseason will be seen in this team for years to come.
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