The 2021 season has just ended, and from March 16, the 2022 campaign will open its doors. DNA of Sports therefore takes the opportunity to offer you an overview of the different franchises during the off-season. Which players to keep and cut? Which free agent to extend? Which rookies to watch? Here are some ideas, franchise by franchise. In the spotlight today, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For the first time since 2004, Pittsburgh will start the season with a name other than Ben Roethlisberger as starting quarterback. A change that marks a turning point in the future of the franchise. It is now necessary to find his replacement, but not only. The attack in general and the air forces (protection included) in particular must be the priority of the leaders.
Changes that do not take place besides only on the ground since the defensive coordinator has changed alongside Mike Tomlin. Teryl Austin (assisted by Brian Flores) takes the place of Matt Canada. Above all, after more than 20 years at the club, including more than ten as general manager, Kevin Colbert will leave his post after the draft. The winds of change are blowing in Pennsylvania.
1. TJ Watt (OLB)
2. Cameron Heyward (DL)
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick (S)
4. Najee Harris (RB)
It certainly comes as no surprise to anyone to see three of the four guards on the defense side. For several seasons now, this group has been the dominant side for the Steelers. Rewarded for an exceptional 2021 season with the title of best defensive player of the year, TJ Watt will once again be the spearhead of the Yellows and Blacks. The pass-rusher is an ordeal for the quarterbacks and should continue to martyr them as soon as the recovery begins. However, we will monitor his health, he who was sometimes in difficulty last year. A full offseason should do him good.
Around him in 2022, he will be able to count on two other strong men of this defense. Next to him on the line first with the presence of Cameron Heyward. The defensive lineman was just named first-team All-Pro for the third time in his career. He is undoubtedly the best player in his position behind Aaron Donald. On the back lines then, we find a still precious Minkah Fitzpatrick. The safety is the general from the back of the field. In a sometimes jagged defensive backfield, he is the insurance of Mike Tomlin both by his footballing qualities and his leadership. His reunion with Brian Flores, recently recruited as a defensive assistant in Pittsburgh, will be interesting. The two men have a common history (not always very quiet) in Miami.
Finally, there are so many questions on the other side of the ball that it is difficult to bring out a lot of jailers. One man, however, emerges as the engine of this squad: Najee Harris. Impressive for his rookie year, the runner should once again be the Steelers’ number one option. It now remains to be seen how he is surrounded.
– Joe Schobert (LB)
– Zach Banner (OT)
– Tyson Alualu (DL)
– Stephon Tuitt (DL)
A short season and then goes away. This is what could happen to Joe Schobert. Less than a year ago, the Steelers set up a trade to bring in the linebacker from Jacksonville. The Jaguars had even agreed to pay part of the player’s salary. Except that the commitment is over and now the defender must cost the franchise $ 8.75 million. That’s a lot for a player who hasn’t been flamboyant this year. The only element that pleads in its favor: the leaders are still not convinced by Devin Bush (see below). They could therefore keep Schobert for safety on the post.
Still in attack, Zach Banner could bear the brunt of the perpetual search for leeway in the salary cap. And even with nearly $30 million of payroll space, gaining some maneuverability is still crucial. Cutting Banner would thus save 5 million to a franchise that has not seen its tackle dominate on the offensive line. The Steelers could also use this money to strengthen this sector precisely. For the other two, injuries have hurt them and Pittsburgh may decide the team can move on without them.
The summer man
Devin Bush (LB)
It’s an all-or-nothing year for Devin Bush. “Make or Break”, as they say on the other side of the Atlantic. There are already three, Pittsburgh went up in the draft to recover the linebacker in 10th position. The Steelers saw in him the designated successor to Ryan Shazier, the one who was to become the central leader of this defense. It is clear that since 2019, he has not endorsed this costume, far from it. The leaders seem disappointed with his performance, to the point of not having yet activated the fifth year of his contract. If they decide to do so, it will have to be before May.
But, there is also a scenario where Kevin Colbert and the Steelers decide to make this fourth year a decisive season for the future of the linebacker. Two years after his heavy injury, he will have to raise his level to finally live up to expectations. Even if this defense is already relatively hermetic, a solid linebacker in the middle of the field would not be refused. Especially in the face of the race, one of the big weaknesses of this squad. Devin Bush knows what he has to do, if he doesn’t want to have to look for a house elsewhere.
The main free agents
1. Joe Haden (BC)
2. Trai Turner (RG)
3. JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR)
4. Chukwuma Okorafor (RT)
5. Terrell Edmunds (S)
Before leaving the ship, Kelvin Colbert will have work. Lots of decisions to be made about whether to keep many players, especially starters. The five present here are. On defense, Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds are important pieces. The first has already announced his desire to end his career in Pittsburgh, but as often (all the time?) money will be the determining factor. The loss of the second would leave a big hole in the safety post. Especially since they are not the only free agents on these positions since Arthur Malet (CB), Ankhello Witherspoon (CB) and Millew Killebrew (S) will also be free to look elsewhere.
On the other side of the ball, Trai Turner and Chukcuma Okorafor, they are about to leave the right of the orphan offensive line. Not sure especially that the front office retains them as their performances have not dazzled many people. The case of Juju Smith-Schuster also remains a mystery. Already free last year, he had finally resigned for a year at the Steelers, disappointed with the proposals received. He should test the market again this year, but not sure his rating has risen after an injury-ridden season. The Steelers target group could also be turned upside down with, in addition to Smith-Schuster, James Washington (WR), Ray-Ray McCLoud (WR) and Eric Ebron (TE) on the list of free agents.
Top 5 Needs
2. Offensive line
4. Defensive line
By its nature and the situation, the position of quarterback is necessarily the main question mark at the dawn of the next season. For the moment Mason Rudolph holds the rope. And even if Mike Tomlin decides to move forward with the 2018 third-round draftee, it’s hard to imagine the executives not adding a little competition. Alongside Dwayne Haskins, the Steelers could recruit a veteran or take a rookie in the draft. It will then be necessary to take care of the protection of the future launcher. The offensive line was abysmal at times in 2021. Dan Moore Jr. Kendrick Green, Kevin Dotson and Zach Banner should be back, but some quality and depth needs to be added to this group. The right side of this line will be a priority.
Still on offense, there could also be a receiver exodus with the many free agents in this sector. It may be time to renew the ball catcher room. Especially since the Steelers still often make the right choices in this position. Finally, on the other side of the ball, the priority is a little lower, but be careful not to fall asleep either. Pittsburgh was the worst team against the run last season and reinforcements on the defensive line could help improve that stat. Depending on the choices of Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds, the franchise could also have to find two holders on its back lines. Not sure that they are already in the workforce as there are so many free agents in this sector.
Brandon Scherff (G)
Despite a comfortable latitude in terms of payroll (almost 30 million), the Steelers will have a hard time spending a lot on a tackle like Terron Armstead for example. This does not prevent them from looking for solutions all the same on the offensive line. Inside, Brandon Scherff represents the best free player of this vintage. For him too, it will be necessary to take out the checkbook, but it is more in the ropes of Pittsburgh (certainly between 14 and 16 million dollars per season).
Despite injuries, the Commanders lineman would be an immediate improvement at right guard over free agent Trai Turner. He would also bring security to the future right tackle of this team, whether it is Chukwuma Okorafor, also a free agent, or another. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh may have competition on this file. Starting with Washington, which should not tag him for a third consecutive time, but which could make him sign a long-term contract.
The new blood
Malik Willis (QB, Liberty)
We said Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins do not necessarily represent the solution to the position of quarterback in the medium and long term for the Steelers. So why not go get a pitcher with the 20th pick next April? Malik Willis could be that man. The Liberty player may still have too many aspects of his game to develop to be chosen very high in this draft, but he has enough qualities to make a team want to choose him in the first round.
Pittsburgh could see in him the future strongman of this attack. In any case, several rumors from Pennsylvania point to an interest in Willis. This choice would be made in the perspective that no other quarterback arrives via the transfer market or a trade. Conversely, if a pitcher arrived before the draft, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would then have room to let their imaginations run wild during it. Why not on the offensive line precisely?
Other possible choices: Trevor Penning (OT), Desmond Ridder (QB), Devin Lloyd (LB)…