The Pittsburgh Steelers entered this league year with well over a dozen players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. They ended up retaining five of those unrestricted free agents, and also tendered their two restricted free agents.
Pittsburgh also added help from outside of the organization at wide receiver, defensive line, running back, and cornerback, but suffered several free agency losses, chiefly at wide receiver and linebacker, and suffered yet another retirement in the process. There was one significant player release, and no contracts were restructured. One franchise tag and one major extension also transpired. They still have four 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: 10
Offseason additions: 3
Offseason losses: 1
Antonio Brown: A perennial All-Pro, Brown is now compensated in correspondence to his performance, as the best wide receiver in the game. Now it is incumbent upon him to simply continue on the field what he has been doing.
Sammie Coates: As for Coates in his third year, it would be great for him to continue what he did in the first five games before a hand injury derailed his season. He has a lot to work on, but also a tremendous amount of talent.
Eli Rogers: Undrafted in 2015, Rogers quickly earned the respect of his teammates and coaches before getting injured early in training camp, having already worked with the first-team offense. He came back after a year on injured reserve and served as the team’s primary slot option for the whole season whenever he was healthy and not being diciplined. He has shown a lot of craftiness and nuance in his technique, but he still has room to grow, and some mistakes to clear out of his game.
Darrius Heyward-Bey: He’s on the wrong side of 30 now and is coming off a foot injury, but he is still the fastest person on the team. Heyward-Bey is a diligent hard worker who is a capable contributor at receiver but whose value lies primarily in his locker room leadership, his special teams prowess in multiple roles, his blocking, and his deep speed. Which is why he’s still here.
Cobi Hamilton: Threatening to become a career journeyman of practice squads, Hamilton got called up due to injuries and found a niche for himself. He’s a hard worker who makes some clutch catches and is willing to stick his nose into it to throw a block.
Demarcus Ayers: The former seventh-round pick got called up late in the year and made some plays, but not enough to see much playing time on a healthy roster. He has his work cut out for him to make the 53 in 2017.
Canaan Severin: Technically a retained player because he spent the year on injured reserve, Severin was an undrafted free agent last year who didn’t even make it to the preseason. But he’s still here, so the team must want to see something from him.
Justin Hunter: One of the Steelers’ many ‘ripples’ in free agency this year, Hunter has size and speed and big-play ability, but an awful lot of technical issues. Perhaps the level of play from the quarterback position and a veteran wide receivers coach could maximize his potential. A low-risk signing with nice upside.
Marcus Tucker: The Steelers were the only team to even offer Tucker a rookie minicamp tryout last year, but he made the 90-man roster, and then spent some time at the end of the year on the practice squad, back for more.
Dez Stewart: Another player who spent some time on the practice squad last year, Stewart is listed at 6’2” on the team’s website. Probably the longest odds to make the roster right now.
Players Lost/Not Retained:
Markus Wheaton: As has become tradition, the Steelers draft wide receivers in the third round and then watch them sign elsewhere. Wheaton is just the latest. His contract year was almost entirely derailed by a shoulder injury, but he still found decent money in Chicago considering how much was riding on him having a big year.
Martavis Bryant: And at last we get to the elephant in the room? Will he be reinstated, and when? If any when that happens, can they realistically just slide him right into the number two role? He’s been a year away from the game and the team, but he’s put work in on his own time and dime.
Notes and Draft Outlook: On paper, the Steelers have enough potential in this group of players to threaten for the greatest receiving corps in the league, but that requires so many things playing out in the right way. Bryant’s reinstatement would quiet a lot of unease, but we won’t know the answers to a lot of questions until August or September. Because of that, the wide receiver position has to be viewed as in play fairly early in the draft this year.