With the annual NFL Scouting Combine a week away, we’re into full blown offseason mode in the NFL world, with free agency beginning shortly thereafter. The legal tampering period where agents can begin negotiating starts on March 14, with free agency and the new league year beginning March 16 at 4:00 PM EST.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have several unrestricted free agents this offseason, some of which were major contributors the past few seasons. On defense, starting cornerback Joe Haden, safety Terrell Edmunds, midseason acquisition Montravius Adams at nose tackle, and promising youngster Ahkello Witherspoon at corner, who despite only starting a few games, actually led the team with three interceptions. Offensively, starting offensive linemen Trai Turner, Chukwuma Okorafor, and receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are all slated to hit the open market.
This morning, NFL.com analyst Gregg Rosenthal mapped out a list of his top 101 ranked free agents, and his results were not kind to the Steelers at all. Despite his injury plagued season in 2021, Smith-Schuster was the ONLY Steeler to make Rosenthal’s cut, coming in at #43.
“Yes, that 1,400-yard season feels like a distant memory,” Rosenthal wrote of JuJu’s selection. “JuJu will probably have to build up his value on a one-year deal with a functioning offense. Hint: Don’t turn down Patrick Mahomes again.”
That one-year deal he’s referring to is the one Smith-Schuster took from the Steelers this past season, but was ultimately cut short due to a shoulder injury, limiting him to just 15 catches for 129 yards. After reportedly turning down more money from the Chiefs last offseason, he settled on a one-year, $8 million deal to give it one last go with Ben Roethlisberger. There are already rumblings of him wanting to link up with the Chiefs again, and at just 25 years old, he would provide Mahomes with another threat capable of making contested catches in traffic and being peppered with targets.
Obviously the potential is there for him to explode, as evidenced by his 2018 stat line of 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. However, that was with the mercurial Antonio Brown on the other side of the formation. Perhaps lining up with the likes of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce can help rediscover/unlock that potential again.
The bigger picture here in the grand scheme of things is the apparent disrespect of the talent-level that Pittsburgh put onto the field last year, as the majority of the aforementioned names were starters. Haden is often labeled as too old to play the position, and Edmunds is a solid yet unspectacular player, but probably not one worthy of that 2018 first-round pick. Not when QB Lamar Jackson was still available. Turner and Okorafor were often scapegoats of the offensive line’s struggles all season long, and despite Okorafor’s draft pedigree, it’s up for debate if the team will even look to re-sign him to another deal. The writing has long been on the wall for Washington, who’s been public about his wishes to exit the Steel City.
It’ll be interesting to see how the team spends their free agent money this offseason, with more salary cap space than I can remember in recent memory. The question is, will they choose to retain some of their own, or bring in outside FA’s? Because in the eyes of Rosenthal, and plenty of others, their exiting players aren’t much to write home about. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.