NFL free agency is right around the corner, and if you aren’t eating, sleeping, and breathing Pittsburgh Steelers free agent speculation, who are you? And what medication are you on? And can I have some? Because I am stuh-resssssed.
History will tell you that the Steelers aren’t typically the make-a-big-splash-in-free-agency type. In more recent years, we’ve seen some surprisingly bold moves from GM Kevin Colbert, but you can almost always take it to the bank that the Steelers will lay low and fly under the radar amid off-season transactions. While this remained true in 2020, Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin did bring in some new blood – three players in particular that I was excited about prior to the season.
Now that said season has come and gone, let’s take a look back at the success – or lack thereof – that 2020’s free agent season brought us.
Stefen Wisniewski, Guard: F
I know it sounds harsh, but hear me out. This failing grade falls more heavily on the Steelers than on Wisniewksi himself. The dude went to the ‘ship this year, so to slap the F on him alone would be ignorant and irresponsible of me. Ultimately, the Steelers did Wisniewski, a Pittsburgh native, and themselves both a disservice in the handling of what would later prove to be much needed depth on the offensive line.
I was initially pumped about this veteran signing when Pittsburgh brought him in at very low risk. He was a 2-time Super Bowl champion who excelled in pass protection and has filled roles all along the offensive line successfully throughout his tenure in the NFL. He was affordable, relatively young for his position, league-tested, and provided depth on a line that was in flux following the departures of Ramon Foster and BJ Finney.
Then, out of seemingly nowhere, he was cut prior to Week 8. Yes, the guy had been out with a lingering pectoral injury since the season-opener, but he wasn’t chopped liver. Depth along the offensive line should always be a priority, especially considering the amount of pressure we asked that line to take every week as if their sole purpose was to protect Ben Roethlisberger. After all, who needs an offensive line that blocks for the run? Not I said the fly (Randy Fichtner is the fly).
My belief is that WIsniewski wasn’t given a fair shake in Pittsburgh, which is a shame considering he’s a hometown guy who is more than serviceable when healthy. His FA grade is solely a reflection on the Steelers inability to build a bench in a year when we – desperately – needed a bench.
Eric Ebron, Tight End: B+
Listen. Don’t come for me because the guy dropped a few passes in a couple games. So did Diontae Johnson. So did Chase Claypool. So did your mom.
When Pittsburgh initially signed Ebron for two years and $12 million, I wasn’t too familiar with him. I did immediately see the value in a pass-catching tight end who could line up with Vance McDonald, and was instantly a vocal advocate for the two-tight end set we had been missing. The possibilities became endless with the former first round pick and WR hybrid, and I was gassed up.
Initially, Ebron lived up to that hype. He caught the passes Indianapolis and Detroit told us he wouldn’t catch. He became a favorite target of Roethlisberger’s, and a strong locker room presence, and he found the endzone. The injury the Colts feared was perpetual was non-existent for a guy who played in 15 of 16 regular season games, missing only one due to COVID-19. It wasn’t until the rest of the receivers started dropping passes, that Ebron showed he was susceptible to it, as well.
A lot of people wrote Ebron off at that point, which I would understand if his on-field performance had continued to deteriorate. However, much like Johnson and Claypool (I can’t speak for your mother), Ebron found his rhythm again. His focus returned, and he made some extremely clutch plays in close games.
I tend to believe a player at his best is who we should trust him to be, and I liked what I saw from our new tight end.
Derek Watt, Fullback: C
This isn’t a referendum on Watt’s play as much as it’s a statement on Fichtner’s absolute inability to implement a scheme that any fullback could find remote success in. Watt was set up for failure from the jump, and I don’t put that on him. Pittsburgh brought Watt in on a three-year, $9.75 million deal that was very feel-good among Steelers fans. A special teams star was exactly what we needed after losing Tyler Matakevich – and who doesn’t love another Watt? My one concern was the price tag, which feels very steep in hindsight. But at that price, ThEy MuSt pLaN oN uSiNg HiM a LoT….. right?
Wrong. I have never – ever – been so wrong. While Watt’s official stats say he appeared in 12 games, I’m skeptical – and he didn’t even touch a football until the postseason.
There were so many situations where Watt should have been on the field, but he wasn’t. There were so many scenarios where he should have led the runner in short yardage. I suddenly recall trying to get into the endzone 8 times from the 1-yard line. And now I have PTSD. It got to the point where a Derek Watt sighting felt like I had spotted Bigfoot and I wanted to alert the media. Hello? SOS. Send help. The declaration has been stolen.
Ultimately, I still graded Watt a C because I know what he’s capable of and I see his leadership on special teams. I do think the Steelers should let him play out his contract at the very least, and I believe he will see more field under a Matt Canada offense.
At the end of the day, I would like to see the Steelers retain both Ebron and Watt in 2021, cap-space allowing. We should have a better idea of what that will look like once Roethlisberger’s situation is ironed out after this week’s meeting with the front office, and free agency officially kicks into gear.