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: Running Back
Total Positional Figure: 9
Offseason additions: 4
Offseason losses: 1
Antonio Brown: A perennial first-team All-Pro doesn’t need a lot of verbiage. He has the ability to break records, or rather continue to do so. A budding Hall of Fame career is what we’re watching here, so appreciate it now.
Markus Wheaton: Especially with Martavis Bryant’s suspension, this is a big, big year for Markus Wheaton, not just because it’s a contract year. He made some strides late last season, showed capable of having the big game, got into the end zone more, improved his YAC, and showed more big-play potential. But he still needs to be more consistent.
Sammie Coates: It’s time for the Steelers to cash in on their Bryant insurance policy, which is what Sammie Coates’ drafting was. He hardly played as a rookie, but was able to flash in playing time during the Divisional round. He should be in line for a major step forward in year two.
Darrius Heyward-Bey: Good teams are built around players like Darrius Heyward-Bey, selfless workers who do the dirty work when told and can step up when asked. That helped earn him stability with a three-year contract. Still 29 years old, the 6’2” burner can still contribute offensively, but he is a big part of the special teams unit.
Eli Rogers: Technically a retained player because he spent the season on injured reserve, Eli Rogers is thus, technically, a second-year player now even though he only made it a week or so into training camp. He had some buzz about him when he got injured, but it’s time to see if he has the ability to make the roster.
Shakim Phillips (Reserve/Future): Rookie undrafted free agent wide receiver Shakim Phillips brought with him to training camp size and speed, but once there, he flashed just enough playmaking ability to get people curious. While he didn’t make the initial 53-man roster, he was carried on the practice squad all year and was re-signed to a Reserve/Future contract after the season.
Tobais Palmer (Reserve/Future): Tobais Palmer is a short, fast wide receiver who just turned 26. Originally signed by the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent, he bounced around on their practice squad and 53-man roster for a year, then spent the next two seasons bouncing around a few different teams, finally signing with the Steelers as a Reserve/Future player to being the offseason.
Levi Norwood (Reserve/Future): The draw for Levi Norwood may primarily be his return work in college, which in itself was not spectacular. But he was a fairly consistent performer at Baylor prior to entering the draft—and going undrafted—last year.
Issac Blakeney (Reserve/Future): Yet another undrafted rookie, Isaac Blakeney was originally signed by the 49ers and then spent less than two weeks on the Redskins’ practice squad. The Steelers signed him to a Reserve/Future deal after the season. If you’re looking for intrigue, he may not be overly fast, but he is 6’3” and has an impressive vertical, while still being relatively new to the wide receiver position.
Players Lost/Not Retained (Suspended):
Martavis Bryant: I could easily make this just a one-word response, but words fail to describe the level of disappointment behind Martavis Bryant’s suspension for what is largely just foolishness and lack of impulse control. Suspended for a year already in place, the team won’t have any formal access to him in 2016. Get right, Martavis.
Notes and Draft Outlook: Tyler Murphy, Jacoby Jones, and Dri Archer are names worth floating out there as receivers who spent time on the 53-man roster a year ago. Murphy was an undrafted free agent former quarterback convert who made the initial roster in Bryant’s place, but spent most of the season on the practice squad. He signed a Reserve/Future contract with the Dolphins. Archer was a RB/WR hybrid with no offensive role who was released mid-season to acquire Jones for his return ability, or as the Steelers soon found out, lack thereof. He, too, was released by the end of the season.
As much as they may still be in good shape without Bryant for this season, it would not be a surprise to see the Steelers take a wide receiver at some point, and not just due to the fact that they have done so in all but one draft since 2005, adding 13 since then.
Wheaton is hitting free agency next year, and would be difficult to re-sign when a long-term, astronomical extension will come due for Brown. Bryant’s future is very much in jeopardy, and we haven’t really seen anything of Coates yet. If the right player is in the right spot of the draft, the Steelers have shown that they will take him.