Steelers 2022 Free Agency Primer: Unrestricted Free Agents – Offense

The Pittsburgh Steelers offseason is now officially underway as of this past Sunday night and between now and the start of the 2022 league year in March the team will need to make several decisions regarding the players scheduled to become free agents. In this post, we’ll look at the ten Steelers offensive players currently scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at the start of the new league year.

Unrestricted free agent (UFA): Any player with four or more accrued seasons and an expired contract; free to negotiate and sign with any team.

QB Ben Roethlisberger – It certainly seems like the long career of Roethlisberger has now come to an end. Currently, the remaining years on Roethlisberger’s contract, all of which are voidable years, are set to void five days after the Super Bowl. While the Steelers could get Roethlisberger to rework the void date and his 2022 base salary to help accommodate a post June 1 retirement, which in turn would free up a little less than $8 million in salary cap space for next season, no such move has happened yet. If no contract rework is done, Roethlisberger will officially become an unrestricted free agent in March if he doesn’t officially retire before then. It’s really just semantics when it comes to having Roethlisberger on this list. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll ever play another snap in the NFL again. It sure was a great run and now the Hall of Fame awaits him.

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – A shoulder injury in Week 5 wrecked Smith-Schuster’s 2021 season. While the Steelers former second round draft pick was able to return from the Reserve/Injured list to play in the team’s Super Wild Card game, those missed games during the regular season were impactful. In total, and not including the playoff game, Smith-Schuster logged 222 offensive snaps in the five games that he played in before suffering his shoulder injury. In those five games, Smith-Schuster registered all of 15 receptions for 129 yards and no touchdowns. He did have one rushing touchdown and nine yards on three total carries, however. Smith-Schuster played for $8 million in 2021 and the remaining years on his contract are set to void not long after the Super Bowl ends. He will then become an unrestricted free agent in March.

Smith-Schuster will likely want a long-term deal in free agency, but his 2021 season might result in him needing to sign another shorter deal, either one or two years. The Steelers would probably love to have Smith-Schuster back in 2022, but only for the right price, which might be even a tad less than they paid him in 2021. The Steelers quarterback situation on the heels of Roethlisberger likely to retire might also play a part in whether or not Smith-Schuster wants to return to Pittsburgh for at least one more season. Of all the offensive players the Steelers have who are set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason, Smith-Schuster’s future is perhaps the hardest one to predict. There’s probably a fifty-fifty chance he’s ultimately re-signed.

T Chukwuma Okorafor – This offseason could wind up being a lucrative one for Okorafor, the Steelers former third round draft pick out of Western Michigan. Some team will likely sign Okorafor to be a starting tackle for them in 2021. Will that team be the surprised? I don’t think you can entirely ruler out that possibility and especially if the Steelers decide to move on from tackle Zach Banner in the coming weeks. In 2021, Okorafor played 1,068 offensive snaps with most of those coming at right tackle. He also logged another 66 regular season snaps on special teams. Pro Football Focus has Okorafor down as allowing two sacks, seven hits and 14 hurries during the regular season. He was also flagged 11 times as well. What is Okorafor’s free agent value? Well, his floor could be a new money acreage of $7 million.

WR James Washington – Of the ten Steelers offensive players currently scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this offseason, Washington is probably the only one that is counting down the hours and minutes until the legal tampering period begins in March. It’s hard to imagine Washington not wanting out of Pittsburgh at this point. In total, the former second round draft pick out of Oklahoma State caught just 24 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns during the 2021 regular season. He played 479 total offensive snaps in 2021 and missed a few games due to a groin injury and testing positive for COVID-19. He did catch two more passes for another 37 yards and a touchdown in the team’s lone playoff game, which might just have been the last contest he plays in while wearing a Steelers uniform. It’s hard to imagine the Steelers re-signing Washington during the offseason and I fully expect he’ll ultimately have himself a new team by the time March ends.

G Trai Turner – The Steelers signed Turner to a one-year, $3 million contract last summer after needing to part ways with veteran guard David DeCastro. While the veteran Turner did go on to start and play in every game for the Steelers in 2021, his overall play was average at best. In the 1,082 offensive snaps that Turner played in 2021 for the Steelers, he gave up seven sacks and 13 hurries, according to PFF stats. He was also flagged six times during the regular season. Turner’s best days are way behind him at this point. While he’ll likely want to still play in 2022, it’s kind of hard to imagine the Steelers re-signing the veteran guard and especially if he’s looking to earn more than he made in 2021. I fully expect Turner will be wearing a different uniform come week 1 of the 2022 regular season.

WR/KR/PR Ray-Ray McCloud – McCloud had a career year in 2021 and mainly due to Smith-Schuster going down injured. In total, McCloud, who played 536 total offensive snaps and 160 special teams snaps during the regular season, registered 39 receptions for 277 yards and no touchdowns. He also carried the football twice for 15 yards, retuned 38 punts for 367 yards and returned 35 kickoffs for another 776 yards. McCloud’s 1,435 combined yards in 2021 were 14th most in the NFL overall. Obviously, over 1,100 of those yards came as a returner. McCloud saw a lot of playing time in the slot after Smith-Schuster went down injured in Week 5. He played for $1 million in 2021 and might be looking for a little more than that this offseason.

Depending on how much McCloud is looking to earn on his next contract will go a long way in deciding if he re-signs with the Steelers. Don’t be surprised if the Steelers re-sign McCloud on the cheap as the wide receiver had one foot out of the NFL when the Steelers gave him a shot two seasons ago. They seem to like McCloud as a returner and as a backup slot wide receiver. If McCloud is ultimately re-signed, you can bet he’ll have some competition to beat out during training camp and the preseason.

TE Eric Ebron – A knee injury ended Ebron’s 2021 season in Week 12 and after he had played 245 total offensive snaps. In total, Ebron registered 12 receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown before being lost to injury. Not surprisingly, Ebron only registered one special teams snap in 2021. Like Roethlisberger, the remaining years on Ebron’s contract are set to void after the Super Bowl. When those years do void, Ebron will be set to become an unrestricted free agent in March. It’s really hard to imagine the Steelers wanting to re-sign Ebron at this point. He’ll be 29 years of age soon and not only is he not much of a blocker, he also doesn’t have any special teams value.

While Ebron’s NFL career might not yet be over with just yet, there’s a very good chance that he’s played his last down in Pittsburgh as a member of the Steelers.

RB Kalen Ballage – It’s really quite amazing that Ballage lasted the entire season on the Steelers 53-man roster in 2021 and that he dressed for and played in all 17 regular season games and the lone playoff game to boot. In total, Ballage played 65 offensive snaps for the Steelers in 2021 and another 98 on special teams. Ballage registered 36 rushing yards on 12 carries during the season and he had two receptions for another 8 yards. He had another 13 yards on four carries in the lone playoff game. Ballage did not register any special teams stats in 2021, which is mainly because most of his snaps in that phase came as a member of the kickoff return team. Ballage isn’t going to be highly sought after in free agency so it will not be a surprise to see him re-signed to one-year veteran salary benefit deal to give him a chance to compete for a roster spot in 2022.

C/G B.J. Finney – Finney, who played on a one-year veteran salary benefit deal in 2021, ended the season on the teams Reserve/Injured list with a back injury. He played 87 offensive snaps in total in 2021 with most coming at left guard. He failed to log any snaps at center in 2021 as well. He also played just 15 snaps on special teams. He saw playing time in just seven games overall. Quite honestly, Finney’s NFL career might be over with at this point. If he does return to the Steelers this offseason, it would once again have to be on a one-year veteran salary benefit deal and probably with nothing guaranteed this time. It won’t be a bit surprising if Finney isn’t re-signed during the offseason.

QB Joshua Dobbs – A foot injury suffered the 2021 preseason landed Dobbs on the Steelers Rebserve/Injured list and he remained their all season. With Roethlisberger now out of the picture, the Steelers might just want Dobbs back on the offseason roster one more time to give the team a third quarterback in the room and one that should have a strong grasp of the playbook as well. If, however, Dobbs is re-signed, it would likely once again be a one-year veteran salary benefit deal with not much, if any, guaranteed money included. Dobbs’ offseason re-signing is far from guaranteed to happen, but don’t be surprised if he is reupped for one more year just the same. It could happen.

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