The Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 season came to an end on Sunday and that means it’s now time to look forward at the many players who are now set to become free agents at the start of the 2019 NFL league year in March. As usual, these free agents are broken down by three types; unrestricted, restricted and exclusive rights. In the coming weeks we will be individually breaking down all of these free agents extensively in separate posts.
Unrestricted Free Agents:
RB Le’Veon Bell – The Steelers failed to sign Bell to a long-term contract two offseasons in a row and this year he decided to sit out the entire season after failing to strike a deal with the team by the July deadline and then refusing to sign his franchise tag tender. While the Steelers do have the right to place either the franchise or transition tag on Bell prior to the start of the 2019 league year in March, such a move probably wouldn’t be wise. For starters, the franchise tag amount is expected to be the quarterback amount in 2019 and that’s just way too expensive. Second, the transition tag, while cheaper, is really flimsy and would result in the Steelers not receiving any compensation should they not match an offer sheet that Bell signs with another team. The Steelers should just wash their hands of Bell once and for all and let him go off to the higher bidder at the start of free agency.
TE Jesse James – James, originally drafted by the Steelers in the fifth-round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Penn State, finished 2018 with 30 receptions for 423 yards and 2 touchdowns in less than 600 offensive snaps played. He’s not a number-one tight end so he shouldn’t be expensive to keep. The Steelers should explore re-signing James prior to March but it should be a modest deal with very low guaranteed money. Should they be unable to do so, losing James to a higher bidder in free agency wouldn’t be the end of the world. That said, his offensive snaps and output would likely need to be addressed via free agency or the draft. Don’t be surprised if he’s re-signed just prior to the start of free agency.
G Ramon Foster – Foster likely wants to remain in Pittsburgh but probably not for the money the Steelers will want to give him to stay. Foster played every snap in 2018 and that’s a huge feather in his cap as he approaches the age of 33. The last time that Foster was poised to be an unrestricted free agent the Steelers re-signed him to a very team-friendly three-year contract. If they can do that again in February or March, great. If they can’t, however, they stand to lose him to an overbidding team in free agency. Personally, I’d like to see Foster end his career where it started and believe he’ll sign another team-friendly contract in the coming months.
DE Tyson Alualu – Alualu, who played just a little more than 300 snaps in 2018, will turn 32 years of age during the offseason. He’s unlikely to be in high demand in free agency and thus might decide to re-sign for the minimum with the Steelers at some point if offered such a deal. The Steelers need to upgrade their depth behind starters Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt during the offseason and that might require a draft pick being used. Alualu would be an ok No. 4 or No. 5 defensive lineman in 2019 but nothing more than that. It really could go either way with him and nobody should be surprised if he’s back or allowed to leave.
DE L.T. Walton – Walton, the Steelers former sixth-round draft pick out of Central Michigan, didn’t play much in 2018 and is provably lucky he lasted the entire season on the 53-man roster. Walton was inactive for most of the games and logged all of 52 defensive snaps. There’s really no reason to re-sign Walton unless the Steelers just want an experienced body around for thew offseason and training camp. It’s hard to imagine Walton being on the Steelers 53-man roster in 2019.
P Jordan Berry – Berry didn’t have a season in 2018 that many will fall over themselves writing about. Because of that, don’t look for the Steelers to offer him anything more than the league minimum. In reality, the Steelers might have been better served to keep punter Matt Wile out of training camp but that obviously didn’t happen. Even if Berry is re-signed for cheap in the coming months, he’s sure to have some decent competition on the offseason roster with him.
OLB Anthony Chickillo – Chickillo, who like Walton is also a former sixth-round draft pick of the Steelers, played roughly 300 defensive snaps in 2018 on his way to registering just 18 total tackles and 1.5 sacks. Chickillo is a slightly above-average special teams player but just a No. 4 outside linebacker. He’s never lived up to the hype he gets every year during training camp. Should the Steelers decide they want Chickillo back competing for a roster spot in 2019, they should be able to re-sign him for the minimum.
CB Coty Sensabaugh – Sensabaugh not only managed to stick on the 53-man roster in 2018, he also started most of the season opposite veteran cornerback Joe Haden once former first-round draft pick Artie Burns was benched. Despite all the extra playing time, Sensabaugh still only managed to register 44 total tackles and 6 defensed passes. Now 30, Sensabaugh isn’t anything more than a backup player and if the Steelers want him for depth in 2019 he should be able to be re-signed for the minimum. Not re-signing him won’t be a huge loss.
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey – 2018 might be the end of the line for Heyward-Bey, who has now spent five seasons in Pittsburgh. He’s forever been more of a special teamer than a wide receiver. In 2018 he managed to register just one reception and 4 total special teams tackles. It’s now time for the Steelers to move on from the former first-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders, who will soon turn 32.
DT Daniel McCullers – While McCullers, yet another former sixth-round draft pick of the Steelers, surprisingly managed to stick around in 2018, he really didn’t do much in the roughly 110 total snaps that he played. The Steelers need better depth behind their three starters and thus it’s time to look for different bodies either via the draft or free agency.
WR Justin Hunter – Hunter, who was inactive for most of the season before suffering a shoulder injury that resulted in him being placed on Reserve/Injured, should not be re-signed. He offers no value on special teams and is only good for a few catches a season. The Steelers shouldn’t have kept Hunter this past season because he was a waste of a roster spot.
RB Stevan Ridley – Ridley made the Steelers initial 53-man roster this year and likely wouldn’t have stayed on it had Bell ultimately signed his franchise tag. Ridley, who played less than 70 offensive snaps, had a key fumble in Week 16 and offered very little to the offense whenever he was on the field. He’s not a special teams asset to boot. The Steelers shouldn’t re-sign Ridley this offseason.
S Nat Berhe – Berhe- a special teams ace and backup safety, had his season cut short by a pectoral injury. Fortunately he played just enough on defense for us to see such an occurrence in Pittsburgh should never happen again. If the Steelers re-sign Berhe, it would be another minimum salary benefit deal with no guarantee he makes the 53-man roster. Hopefully they just let him ride off into the sunset for good.
ILB L.J. Fort – Fort made the Steelers 53-man roster again this year and wound up playing a considerable amount of sub-package snaps on defense in addition to his heavy load on special teams. Fort should be able to be re-signed for the minimum during the offseason and allowed to compete for a backup spot in 2019.
WR Eli Rogers – Rogers spent most of the 2018 season on the Steelers Reserve/PUP list and that could result in his one-year contract tolling during the offseason and thus prevent him from becoming a free agent. Even if Rogers’ contract doesn’t toll and he does become an unrestricted free agent, the Steelers should be able to re-sign him to another one-year minimum salary benefit contract. Regardless, he’s probably worth having back in training camp in 2019.
ILB Ryan Shazier – Shazier is in a unique situation because of the spinal injury he’s still attempting to recover from in addition to his contract being restructured last May. In short, Shazier’s 2018 year is likely to toll being as he spent the entire season on the team’s Reserve/PUP list and thus he wouldn’t be a free agent. Assuming that happens, the Steelers would then need to decide if he’ll be able to return to playing in 2019, which right now doesn’t appear likely to happen.
Restricted Free Agents:
TE Xavier Grimble – Grimble wasn’t anything special in the roughly 175 offensive snaps that he played. There was also that big goal-line fumble that he had in the team’s loss in Denver that has to still sting. There is no reason for the Steelers to give Grimble a low right of first refusal restricted tender. Instead, they can let him test free agency and re-sign him him as a minimum salaried camp body should that be the route they want to go.
G/C B.J. Finney – Finney fortunately didn’t have to play a a lot of snaps in 2018. The Steelers must now decide what level they want to restricted tender him at. If they choose not to re-sign Foster before the start of the new league year, the Steelers might want to give Finney a second-round restricted tender to ensure he isn’t signed away by another team.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents:
LS Kameron Canaday – Canaday’s the Steelers current long snapper, can easily be retained with a one-year exclusive rights tender for the minimum. It’s hard to see that not happening.
G/T Matt Feiler – What a find Feiler has been. After starting 10 games at right tackle for the Steelers in 2018 it’s easy to predict that Feiler will be retained with a one-year exclusive rights tender for the minimum.
CB Mike Hilton – Ditto for Hilton the team’s starting nickel cornerback again in 2018. At worst, Hilton should receive another minimum exclusive rights tender from the steelers during the offseason and he might even be a candidate to get an extension prior to the 2019 regular season getting underway.
S Jordan Dangerfield – After lasting all season on the Steelers 53-man roster, the Steelers have nothing really to lose by giving him a minimum exclusive right tender during the offseason. He’s a good special teams player and worth inviting back to training camp again.
T Zach Banner – Banner was only active for one game in 2018 and failed to play any snaps. Even so, the Steelers will likely give him a minimum exclusive rights tender and a ticket to compete for a 2019 roster spot in training camp. (UPDATE) Already re-signed on Monday.
TE Jake McGee – An Achilles injury resulted in McGee spending the 2018 season on the team’s Reserve/Injured list. Now the team will need to decide if he’s healthy enough to warrant another shot in training camp via a minimum exclusive rights tender.
S Malik Golden – The young former drafted free agent safety had his 2018 season wiped out by a knee injury suffered during the preseason. He’s eligible for a minimum salary tender should the Steelers want to give him one and an invite to training camp.
ILB Keith Kelsey – A pectoral injury wiped out Kelsey’s 2018 season so he’s in the same boat as McGee and Golden are. Its hard to know for sure if any of those three will receive exclusive rights tenders in the coming weeks and months.
OL Joseph Cheek – Cheek spent the season on the teams Reserve/Injured list. It’s probably a good bet that he won’t be issued a minimum exclusive rights tender.