The Pittsburgh Steelers entered this league year with nearly a couple dozen players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. They ended up retaining five of those unrestricted free agents, but did not tender their one restricted free agent, who signed elsewhere.
Pittsburgh also added help from outside of the organization at tight end, tackle, linebacker, and the defensive line, but suffered several free agency losses, chiefly at cornerback and linebacker, and suffered yet another key retirement in the process. There were no significant player releases, and no contracts were restructured. They still have six unrestricted free agents who remain unsigned.
The organization has been clear throughout recent weeks that they have essentially wrapped up all meaningful free agent activities, with the focus turning to the draft, so now is a good time to take a look back and see where each position started at the beginning of the process and where it is now leading up to the draft.
Position: Defensive End
Total Positional Figure: 7
Offseason additions: 2
Offseason losses: 2
Cameron Heyward: Although Cameron Heyward hasn’t made a Pro Bowl quite yet, perhaps he should have. The fifth-year veteran has led or tied for the team lead in sacks in each of the past two seasons, tallying 14.5 between them, and he has become the nucleus of a rising defensive unit overall, which follows his example as a tireless worker and relentless football player. Of course, he is also being compensated commensurate to his value.
Stephon Tuitt: The Steelers will also have to be compensating Stephon Tuitt quite favorably after this season as well, most likely, as he enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2017. Given how thin the line already is, they likely couldn’t risk letting him hit the market. He really began to blossom last year as a truly high-quality bookmark end to Heyward that can be effective in the nickel.
L.T. Walton: L.T. Walton was a late-round draft pick last season who was only active in the games in which the team was down a lineman due to injury. Can he be anything more than that in 2016? It’s impossible to know that at this point—which means the team can’t count on it either.
Ricardo Mathews: A former Chargers, the Steelers added Ricardo Mathews on a one-year, veteran-minimum deal that, if I recall correctly, did not even include a signing bonus. He played primarily in the nickel for San Diego last year. If he manages to make the roster, the hope will be that he can at least take some reps from Heyward and Tuitt.
Caushaud Lyons (Reserve/Future): An intriguing physical prospect, the team claimed Caushaud Lyons off waivers last season after the final roster cuts as an undrafted rookie free agent. He spent the first few weeks on the 53-man roster before being stashed on the practice squad? Will he have anything to offer? I’m sort of anticipating hearing anything about him.
Players Lost/Not Retained:
Cam Thomas: One of the worse outside free agent signings in recent years for the Steelers, Cam Thomas is unsurprisingly still looking for a team a week out from the draft. He was forced into the starting lineup in 2014 when Pittsburgh wasn’t ready to throw and ill-prepared Tuitt to the wolves, but in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the rookie doing much worse. Thomas’ role dramatically decreased last season, and the fact that the team primarily plays in the nickel now only makes him less desirable to return.
Clifton Geathers: Clifton Geathers has managed to collect a healthy number of paychecks over the course of the past two seasons in spite of having never even dressing for a game. Of course, he spent all of last season on injured reserve due to some sort of undisclosed condition. But the team has yet to show any interest in trying again with him, nor has any other team that I’m aware of for that matter.
Notes and Draft Outlook: Heyward logged nearly 90 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, and had Tuitt not missed two-plus games, he would have topped it. That wasn’t by design, but out of necessity due to a lack of rotational options, which is why their snap totals increased as the season progressed and the wins became more critical.
Drafting a defensive lineman is a massive need, although a nose tackle—one that can also offer other utilities—is a bigger need due to the departure of Steve McLendon. There’s no question, however, that the Steelers have to add another player that can potentially give Heyward and Tuitt a breather, rather than settling on Mathews, Walton, and Lyons.