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Reviewing the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2022 offseason

As the Steelers transition from their 18-year Ben Roethlisberger partnership, they’ve his inheritor obvious — in the end — in place. Until Kenny Pickett takes the reins, this has the look of a transition season. The AFC has seen a number of fringe contenders make what look like important enhancements, and the Steelers could have appreciable floor to make up at quarterback in the AFC North.

But this group, as you will have heard, doesn’t end below .500. This quarterback change will check Mike Tomlin‘s 16-year streak, but the Steelers made several upgrades to their starting lineup. Will the host of midlevel additions, and a perennially fearsome pass rush, be enough to prop up a Mitchell Trubisky-quarterbacked team in this season’s early going?

Notable signings:

After the pandemic-induced cap discount led to the restructure-happy Steelers shedding key gamers final 12 months, the 2022 cap spike helped them commit higher sources to bolstering their offensive line and different spots. On the entire, the group stayed in the free-agency pool a bit longer than even its pre-pandemic regular. After spending $24.5M on free brokers in 2020 and $46.5M in 2019, Pittsburgh surpassed $80M in the market’s first week. The UFAs, SFAs and Ogunjobi, who lingered someplace in between, ought to enhance the group’s beginning lineup. But how a lot will the needle transfer?

As obvious as Roethlisberger’s decline grew to become, the Steelers seemingly will open the season with certainly one of the NFL’s worst beginning quarterbacks. QBR did slot Trubisky’s 2020 season forward of even Roethlisberger’s — which featured 33 landing passes for a group with a last-ranked dashing assault — however the former one-year North Carolina starter has submitted an intensive run of mediocre NFL play. The Steelers do have a extra well-rounded receiver steady in comparison with Trubisky’s Chicago troops, a largely Allen Robinson-dependent operation, and, seemingly, a superior operating again. Perhaps with higher instruments, the 2017 No. 2 general decide could make stabs at additional rebuilding his inventory.

But the Bears benched Trubisky for a wholesome portion of the 2020 season and made the playoffs thanks largely to a smooth late-season schedule. The subsequent NVP Award grew to become emblematic of certainly one of this period’s defining draft missteps. Trubisky, 27, managed simply 6.1 yards per try in 2019, and whereas he did go away Chicago with a 64-37 TD-INT ratio, he was given a protracted runway to start out. That substantial pattern dimension, forward of the midcareer Brian Daboll internship, led evaluators in The Athletic’s latest quarterback tiers mission to fit Trubisky thirty third general (subscription required).

Although Trubisky has seven-figure playing-time incentives that begin at the 60% snap threshold, Pickett virtually definitely will see time in 2022. Trubisky’s 2017 usurping of Mike Glennon (after 4 video games) is extra norm than exception for first-round rookies. Jordan Love and even Patrick Mahomes are the outliers in the fashionable NFL. Until the Steelers make the change, Trubisky’s early-career pattern dimension — and the AFC’s general power — level to the group’s ceiling remaining pretty low.

Trubisky invitations apparent questions on Pittsburgh’s viability, however he ought to be protected higher than Roethlisberger was in his finale. The group’s prime O-line addition, Daniels won’t flip 25 till mid-September. Pro Football Focus graded the former Bears second-round decide as a top-25 guard in every of his three full seasons as a starter. This kind of participant just isn’t normally obtainable for lower than $9M assured, which factors to entrance places of work being much less bought on the Iowa alum’s expertise in comparison with PFF. But Daniels is the type of participant to guess on — one simply coming into his prime — and the Steelers have him on barely a top-15 guard contract by way of 2024.

Pittsburgh continued its prolonged foray into free company’s center sector with Cole, who will come over after yo-yoing between first- and second-string roles all through his rookie contract. Cole, 26, is hardly a solidified heart. But the former Cardinals third-round decide has 39 profession begins. He will seemingly be an improve on Kendrick Green, a 2021 third-rounder PFF positioned close to the backside of its 2021 heart hierarchy. Cole’s arrival can even permit Green to play his pure place, guard, depending on how his battle with Kevin Dotson goes. The loser represents respectable inside depth.

After not devoting a lot to their proper sort out spot since Marcus Gilbert‘s injuries sidetracked his career, the Steelers handed out another midlevel deal to the player who has been Gilbert’s major successor. Okorafor is to not be confused with certainly one of the league’s greatest right-edge protectors, therefore the $9.25M assured, however he has been obtainable (31 begins since 2020). That is an admittedly low bar, making the extension considerably shocking. Okorafor shall be 25 this season, giving the Steelers extra time to mildew the former third-round decide, however PFF has slotted him exterior its prime 60 at the sort out spot throughout his two starter years.

As may very well be anticipated, based mostly on how the Steelers constructed their 2021 O-line, PFF graded the quintet twenty sixth final season. Big Ben took 38 sacks — his most since 2013 — and Najee Harris managed solely 3.9 yards per carry. It could be good if the Steelers had elite O-line coach Mike Munchak again to assist make these mid-tier contracts sparkle, however the group made some cost-efficient enhancements up entrance. It stays to be seen if they are going to be drastic enhancements or patch jobs.

The final remaining “Sacksonville”-era defender to go away the Jaguars, Jack has a transparent likelihood to revive his relevance in Pittsburgh. The six-year Jags starter shall be poised to anchor the group’s linebacking corps, being offered an opportunity to resurface after a down season throughout Jacksonville’s dreadful Urban Meyer experiment. This will solely be Jack’s age-27 season. The 82-game starter will present a strong pace presence for the group’s second degree, giving the Steelers the type of stability they’ve largely lacked since Ryan Shazier‘s tragic harm. A Jack bounce-back might result in the type of long-term partnership the Steelers solid with Joe Haden, who was coming off a down 12 months with the Browns when he caught on in Pittsburgh 5 years in the past.

Landing in the similar tax bracket as different key gamers the Steelers added, Ogunjobi ought to assist the Steelers enhance on their No. 32 run-defense rating. The sixth-year veteran will try to exchange Stephon Tuitt, who was sorely missed in 2021. The former Browns draftee is coming off a greater season than Jack, main the Bears to supply a three-year contract value $40.5M. Ogunjobi’s seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss (each career-high marks) rewarded the Bengals, however the foot harm suffered in the group’s wild-card sport modified his trajectory. The Steelers could have a motivated inside defender — he of two 5.5-sack seasons in Cleveland — who noticed a piece of assured cash ($26.35M) denied after his failed Bears bodily.

Post-Haden, Pittsburgh’s cornerback contingent is gentle on investments. Zero first- or second-round picks reside on this place group, and former third-rounder Justin Layne doesn’t look like a starter candidate. The Steelers’ after-Haden plan does provide upside, nonetheless. No cornerback allowed a decrease passer ranking than Witherspoon’s 35.1 final season. Although that effort got here in simply 9 video games (three begins), the Steelers noticed sufficient to re-sign the ex-49ers starter. Wallace has loved a barely steadier profession, being a full-time starter ever since his rookie 12 months regardless of UDFA standing. His 2021 rating-against determine (72.6) bested Haden’s by a large margin.

Still, this duo becoming a member of Cameron Sutton, who is also tied to a contract between $4M-$5M AAV, appears like a less expensive model of what the group is making an attempt to do on its O-line. It is comprehensible, contemplating the contracts given to Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt, the Steelers would in the reduction of elsewhere. But their unorthodox nook and O-line teams, investment-wise, do current the look of vulnerability at marquee positions. Having no first- or second-round picks at nook or sort out is a moderately uncommon technique.

Notable losses:

Roethlisberger has fewer Pro Bowl invitations in comparison with Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning authored barely extra memorable postseason journeys. But Big Ben could have the best time of the famed 2004 QB class reaching Canton. Roethlisberger held down the Steelers’ beginning quarterback job for 18 years. Only Tom Brady has stored a group’s QB1 reins that lengthy. Big Ben offered the Steelers stability that allowed a typically conservative franchise to focus roster-building efforts elsewhere. While Brady fended off Jimmy Garoppolo at the finish of his Patriots run, the Steelers didn’t usher in a Big Ben successor throughout his profession — one which included 5 contracts and final 12 months’s renegotiated deal.

Big Ben benefited from upper-crust defenses throughout his 20s, forming the most formidable Pittsburgh playoff operations since the Seventies, however he confirmed throughout the Antonio Brown interval sustained aerial chops that positioned him amongst the league’s greatest QBs. Roethlisberger’s 2020 comeback had the Steelers at 11-0, and though his post-elbow-surgery model introduced noticeable diminishments — significantly as a downfield passer — Pittsburgh wanted his Hall of Fame expertise to safe the AFC North title. Big Ben throwing 33 landing passes in a post-AB season represents a pleasant legacy sweetener, even when that 2020 marketing campaign’s conclusion — one of some Roethlisberger-era Steelers playoff upset losses — and final 12 months’s swifter decline created a transparent exit door.

Smith-Schuster missed most of the Roethlisberger deterioration as a consequence of a shoulder harm, and Brown’s departure did have an effect on his manufacturing. The Steelers tried to reform their deep 2020 receiving corps final 12 months, however Roethlisberger’s limitations — and Smith-Schuster’s absence — interfered. Smith-Schuster remains to be simply 25 and can take a significant leap in quarterback and play-caller quality in Kansas City. The Steelers famously don’t overpay to maintain huge receivers deemed inessential, and Smith-Schuster didn’t come near his 2018 (feat. AB) dominance in the ensuing three seasons. But there may be definitely an opportunity the Steelers watch some further 1,000-yard seasons from Smith-Schuster, as they did from Emmanuel Sanders after his Pennsylvania departure.

Tuitt is not technically a loss from 2021, since an injury and the loss of his brother in a car crash prevented him from playing. But the interior defensive lineman was one of the NFL’s most underrated players (zero Pro Bowls) who delivered strong work against the run as an inside rusher. The Steelers dropped from first to 20th in defensive DVOA from 2020 to ’21, ranking last against the run. Cam Heyward‘s wingman did plenty to help Pittsburgh form imposing defenses in the late 2010s and into 2020, doing so after Big Ben’s mid-2010s statistical apex got here alongside much less sturdy defensive items. Ogunjobi could have a tall order changing the former second-round discover, who left $9M on the desk by retiring earlier than his twenty ninth birthday.

Also a significant a part of that defensive turnaround, working as the Steelers’ No. 1 nook after the then-tanking Browns bailed on him late in the 2017 offseason, Haden noticed clear wall writing earlier than his 2021 contract 12 months. The Steelers historically lengthen who they need to earlier than gamers’ stroll years, and Haden expressed curiosity in staying on a 3rd deal. But the group didn’t share that need, letting the Pro Bowl cowl man play out his two-year, $22.4M deal. The listing of cornerbacks delivering high quality seasons past age 32 is comparatively brief, and Haden returning would make him the league’s solely 33-year-old nook. The 12-year vet has received offseason interest, simply not from Pittsburgh.

Draft picks:

While the Giants and Packers nabbed their inheritor obvious arms throughout their getting older starters’ tenures with the group, the Chargers and Patriots waited. The Steelers, after buying and selling their 2020 first-round decide for Fitzpatrick, zeroed in on Harris in 2021. Going 18 years between starter-caliber QB picks, Pittsburgh’s passer want grew to become evident simply as a extremely scrutinized class of passers entered the draft. From a draft real-estate perspective, the group benefited by selecting this 12 months to accumulate its Roethlisberger successor. The group didn’t must commerce any belongings and had its decide of this 12 months’s QBs. But this being a signal-caller class that noticed its prime prospect go off the board at No. 20, later than any draft has began at this place since the 49ers’ 1997 Jim Druckenmiller decide (twenty sixth), the Steelers additionally run the danger of choosing the incorrect 12 months to make their post-Big Ben transfer.

Not a part of Dane Brugler’s top-50 preseason draft board final fall for The Athletic — on a listing that had Sam Howell, Spencer Rattler, Matt Corral, Carson Strong, Malik Willis and positioned Leal fifth general — Pickett used his COVID-19-created fifth 12 months of eligibility spectacularly. The former Matt Rhule Temple commit-turned-Pitt long-term starter broke by way of with a 42-touchdown move, seven-interception 2021 season and went 54 spots forward of the subsequent QB drafted. Pickett has proven plus arm strength and sufficient scrambling ability. A wholesome skepticism about his ceiling nonetheless surfaced forward of the draft. But, till he proves in any other case, Pickett represents the Steelers’ gateway to big-picture AFC relevancy.

Representing commonplace Steelers receiver process, the second-round Pickens decide might lay a path towards a Diontae Johnson departure. New GM Omar Khan stated the group want to retain Johnson however acknowledged the issues the exploding receiver market generates. Going right into a contract 12 months, Johnson is probably not seen internally as a No. 1-caliber receiver. A large worth hole is believed to exist between the Steelers and their top receiver. Despite Roethlisberger peppering the shifty participant with targets, resulting in a career-high (by far) 1,161 receiving yards in 2021, Pickens’ arrival may lead Johnson — who started coaching camp staging a “hold in” — to free company in 2023.

The Steelers didn’t provide the former third-rounder an extension this offseason, and whereas they’re anticipated to suggest one thing to retain their prime wideout, it’s not expected to be in the ballpark of what Metcalf ($24M per 12 months), Samuel ($23.9M AAV) and McLaurin ($23.2M) acquired. As such, Johnson may very well be staging a “hold in” to nowhere.

Johnson leaving would proceed an intensive procession of wideouts the Steelers deemed non-vital leaving throughout or after their rookie contract. Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders signed their second contracts elsewhere. Discounting Smith-Schuster’s one-year deal in 2021, the fashionable Steelers have deviated from their one-contract receiver coverage solely for Hines Ward and Antonio Brown. A better Johnson wage might match up with Pickett’s rookie deal, however the indicators are presently pointing towards the Toledo participant auditioning for different groups this season.

Pittsburgh’s receiver factory’s sweet spot has become well-known. The team drafted Johnson, Sanders, Wallace, Chase Claypool, James Washington, Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton on Day 2 since 2010. With Smith-Schuster and Washington gone, Pickens will virtually definitely be requested to be the group’s No. 3 wideout as a rookie. Character considerations stemming from an on-field struggle and an ACL tear suffered throughout 2021 spring follow led to Pickens falling off the first-round radar, however the Georgia expertise totaled greater than 1,200 receiving yards and notched 14 landing receptions as an underclassman.

The 6-foot-3 move catcher additionally clocked a 4.47-second 40-yard sprint. He fell to a group with the NFL’s most intensive wideout-development monitor file. So did Austin, who goes simply 5-foot-9 and 162 kilos. The latter, whom the Ravens had been set to draft, ought to be anticipated to help Pittsburgh’s return sport and work as a gadget participant. Despite his slight body, Austin zoomed for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at the American Athletic Conference faculty. His potential to play inside regularly might additionally affect the group’s long-term considering re: Johnson.

Extensions and restructures:

After looking for a long-term Troy Polamalu successor in the draft (Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds), the Steelers capitalized on the Dolphins’ points with Fitzpatrick. Acquiring the former first-round decide, the Steelers had been solely on the hook for his base salaries. Fitzpatrick’s signing bonuses being on Miami’s payroll as he made back-to-back All-Pro groups in Pittsburgh represented certainly one of the league’s prime contractual values. After the group took care of T.J. Watt, not a lot doubt was related to Fitzpatrick’s long-term standing.

Jamal Adams having topped the security market by $2.25M per 12 months, through his $17.5M-per-year Seahawks pact, laid the groundwork for Fitzpatrick. The Steelers usually are not large on guaranteeing cash past Year 1 for non-Roethlisberger gamers, however they did it for Watt. They didn’t for Fitzpatrick, however it will be pretty stunning if he didn’t play deep into this contract — one which runs by way of the Alabama product’s age-30s season. On a group with a midlevel cornerback solid and Edmunds signed to a low-cost, one-year deal, Fitzpatrick represents the clear anchor. Although the cap is again on the rise, the Steelers’ two record-setting contracts on the defensive facet could drive some cutbacks. Looking at the group’s cornerback state of affairs, that seems to have already began.

Now the second-longest-tenured lively Steeler, Boswell broke by way of as a long-range sniper final season. He made eight of his 9 50-plus-yard tries, together with two fourth-quarter makes throughout a Bears matchup that ended with a 40-yard Boswell walk-off, after combining for simply three 50-plus-yard successes from 2018-20. This marks the second Boswell extension. This one bumps him up from the ninth-highest-paid kicker to a tie atop the wage hierarchy alongside Justin Tucker ($5M AAV).

Other:

Representing a basic Steelers promotion, Khan loved the alternative to study from Colbert throughout virtually the entirety of the longtime GM’s tenure. Khan arrived in Pittsburgh in 2001, turning into their chief negotiator regardless of being in his 20s at that time, and formed the group’s contractual technique in locations. He was the level man on the group’s philosophy of restructuring contracts to create near-future house — down-the-road penalties be damned. That technique mattered extra when the pandemic led to a 2021 cap discount, however Khan’s work has allowed the Steelers to retain core gamers for years. He will proceed Colbert’s coverage of not negotiating in-season.

Adding Weidl, a Pittsburgh native who began his NFL personnel career by working with the team back during the Tom Donahoe GM regime in the late 1990s, stands to aid Khan’s transition as well. Khan pushed for the addition, regardless of each being finalists for the GM gig. Weidl was certainly one of the six finalists for the put up. He joined most of Howie Roseman‘s Eagles mind belief to go away Philadelphia this offseason.

Tied to each Tomlin and Bill Cowher, Colbert might develop into a Hall of Fame candidate down the highway. The Steelers gained two Super Bowls and ventured to 3 throughout his time. The group shaped an elite defensive core throughout the 2000s, retaining it into the early 2010s, and unleashed Roethlisberger by discovering Brown in the 2010 sixth spherical. AB’s late-career meltdowns apart, that decide goes down as a Colbert win. Turning James Harrison from UDFA into the Defensive Player of the Year, nabbing James Farrior for 3 years and $5.4M and including Ryan Clark on a low-cost 2006 deal helped kind certainly one of this period’s most dominant defenses (the 2008 squad). Choosing Roethlisberger and plucking Tomlin after one 12 months as Minnesota’s DC…additionally good strikes. While Colbert could not have operated aggressively sufficient in free company in Big Ben’s later years, when the group bumped into persistent postseason roadblocks, the Steelers contended for playoff spots and Super Bowls in practically each season throughout the GM’s tenure.

Austin, 57, will have another chance after three seasons off the DC level. He served as Lions DC from 2014-17 under Jim Caldwell, but after Ndamukong Suh‘s 2015 departure, Austin’s items didn’t strategy the top-five realm the 2014 crew entered. The Bengals fired Austin throughout the 2018 season. The Steelers have groomed him behind Butler, their DC from 2015-21 however a Pittsburgh assistant since 2003, they usually have a former head coach on employees. Tomlin bringing Flores aboard amid his racial discrimination lawsuit ought to profit the Steelers. Flores has three years of HC expertise and served as Bill Belichick‘s de facto DC throughout the 2018 season — when the Patriots grew to become the second group in Super Bowl historical past to maintain an opponent out of the finish zone.

The Steelers additionally gave Haskins a second likelihood. They signed the former first-round decide in January 2021, affording the former Ohio State celebrity a possibility after a tough Washington tenure. Haskins skilled behind Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph and was given an RFA tender this offseason. His tragic loss of life coming at age 24 represented certainly one of the worst NFL tales in years. It sadly preceded the offseason deaths of Cardinals cornerback Jeff Gladney and Ravens linebacker Jaylon Ferguson.

Top 10 cap expenses for 2022:

  1. T.J. Watt, OLB: $31.12M
  2. Cameron Heyward, DL: $17.41M
  3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, S: $8.12M
  4. Larry Ogunjobi, DL: $8M
  5. Devin Bush, ILB: $6M
  6. Cameron Sutton, CB: $5.2M
  7. Chris Boswell, Ok: $4.95M
  8. Myles Jack, ILB: $4.75M
  9. Derek Watt, FB: $4.71M
  10. Chukwuma Okorafor, T: $4.33M

For the legit concern surrounding how the franchise will fare post-Roethlisberger, this did make for certainly one of the smoothest transitions away from a future Hall of Fame QB — an 18-year run adopted by a shift to a Pittsburgh-headquartered prospect. Still, the bridge to that actuality could be prolonged. If Watson — when the attraction and/or authorized course of wraps — finally ends up enjoying extensively this season, the Steelers’ components is probably not sufficient with out Pickett being a fast research.

Granted, the final time the group broke in a rookie QB, it went 15-1. A top quality operating again, a pleasant mixture of pass-catchers and certainly one of the NFL’s higher defensive nuclei will await Pickett when he takes the reins. A repeat of the 2004 season is moderately unlikely, however the Steelers nonetheless have rather a lot going for them as Pickett trains for his QB1 ascension.

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