The Pittsburgh Steelers season didn’t end how we all wanted it to, that’s for sure. The team is moving into the 2021 NFL season with questions in a variety of areas. So far, the Steelers have had two members of the 2020 roster retire. Vance McDonald and Maurkice Pouncey have both called it a career. In addition to the retirements, the Steelers have multiple players that will be headed to free agency unless the team chooses to re-sign them. The Steelers current cap situation makes it difficult to re-sign every player, so the team has some tough choices to make. There are more than 20 players that were on the 2020 roster or practice squad that could hit free agency this offseason one way or another. Some of those players are unrestricted free agents meaning they can sign with any team once free agency starts. Some players are restricted free agents meaning those players can sign with any team, but the Steelers would have the option to match any offer sheet another team offers them. A few more of those players are exclusive rights free agents meaning those players have less than 3 accrued seasons and cannot negotiate with another team if the Steelers offer them a one-year deal at league minimum salary. Some of the possible key losses to free agency are Bud Dupree, Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, Zach Banner, James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton, Mike Hilton, and Tyson Alualu. All of whom are unrestricted free agents going into this offseason.
It all depends on how things fall into place and the decisions that are made by the Steelers’ front office. Of course the Steelers will have to make quite a few tough decisions among those players and those decisions will effect the list of needs to address, but let’s take a look at the top 5 needs of the offseason that the team should look to address through free agency or the NFL Draft.
1. Offensive Tackle
The Steelers need to rebuild the offensive line with an infusion of youth and power. Even though, future Hall of Fame center, Pouncey, officially announced his retirement yesterday, I still believe finding a premier left tackle for now and the future is the number one need. I think the team decides to move on from Villanueva and will be in need of a starting left tackle. There are candidates to do so that were on the 2020 roster, but there are still a lot of unknowns. The team will most likely bring Banner back and he’s hungrier than ever to prove himself after missing this past season with ACL and MCL tears. Banner played extremely well in his one game of the 2020 season. He could very well be the starting left tackle next season depending on how the dominoes fall. An ideal situation would be to use our 1st round pick on a day one starter at the left tackle position. The Steelers need to commit to improving the run game and Steelers President, Art Rooney II wants the team to do just that! A good start would be to find a complete left tackle that excels both in the run game and the passing game.
Steelers president Art Rooney II has expressed a renewed commitment to the running game twice in the past few weeks.
“The old saying goes: ‘If you play good defense and run the ball, you’ll be in most games.’”
— Post-Gazette Sports (@PGSportsNow) February 7, 2020
This year’s draft provides a lot of options for a possible Pouncey replacement at the center position. Looking at the 2021 Draft Class, the Steelers could snag a center as late as the 3rd round and still have a competent NFL starter for years to come. J.C. Hassenauer was the backup this past season and gained some starting experience filling in for Pouncey in 4 games. Hassenauer is an exclusive right free agent and the Steelers may bring him back for the purpose of depth and his versatility to play center or guard. However, I just don’t see him as the long-term answer at center.
3. Running Back
Finally, after addressing the offensive line needs, for the team to commit to improve the running game next season, they will need to add a competent running back. The team will most likely allow Conner to walk in free agency and move in a different direction. The team still has Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, and Jaylen Samuels all under contract for the 2021 season, but can one of those guys step up and be “the guy?” Maybe. Only time will tell, and I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t impressed with Snell at the early point in the season, but I wasn’t impressed with his vision as a ball carrier this past season. The Steelers will still address the running back position at some point in the offseason and there are rumors of interest in free agent running back Aaron Jones. With the cap situation, I just can’t see the team spending top dollar on a running back. The Steelers could still address the running back position in free agency, once money is moved around a bit to clear some cap space, but not for a top free agent that will command a large contract. Here is another instance where the team could spend a day two pick to find their guy.
With both Hilton and Sutton entering free agency this offseason, the Steelers will most likely have to choose one or the other. There is just not enough money give both players the contract they deserve. There is a scenario in which the team could lose both corners to different teams this offseason, which would obviously bump the need of CB further up this list. Another factor to take into account is the fact that Joe Haden isn’t getting any younger. In my opinion, the corner is still playing at a high level and can still perform, but the team needs to prepare for life after Haden as well. We all remember how terrible the days of not having two capable starting outside corners were, we don’t want to go back down that path.
The Steelers will eventually need to address the quarterback position. The future of future 1st ballot Hall of Famer, Ben Roethlisberger, is still up in the air. Obviously, if the quarterback decides to retire, it will bump the need of quarterback to number 1, without question. If Roethlisberger and the Steelers can come to an agreement for the quarterback to come back at a less expensive cap hit, the Steelers could wait until next offseason to address the position. The last thing a fan wants is to be stuck in QB purgatory for 20 years, just ask Cleveland Browns‘ and New York Jets‘ fans. The best ran organizations address the quarterback position before they become absolutely desperate. See, the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers, and wait for it… the Pittsburgh Steelers and Roethlisberger way back in 2004. The Steelers didn’t draft Roethlisberger to be a day one starter even at 11 overall. The idea was to have him learn under QB Tommy Maddox for a little while. However, we all know that’s not what happened. Maddox was injured in Week 2 of Roethlisberger’s rookie season and backup QB Charlie Batch was out with a knee injury. Roethlisberger took the field and the rest became history. Could the Steelers draft a QB on day one this year? It is a possibility, especially if they fall in love with a guy. Even though there are much more dire needs for this team right now, the Steelers could straddle the fence of a win now mindset or a mindset of preparing for life after Ben. I am not opposed to pulling the trigger on a draft day trade up for a guy like Justin Fields or Trey Lance, even if Roethlisberger and the Steelers can come to an agreement for the quarterback to return at a much smaller cap hit. Certainly, the latter of those two draft prospects being a much more realistic possibility.