Now that the 2021 season is over, bringing yet another year of disappointment, a fifth consecutive season with no postseason victories, it’s time to take stock of where the Pittsburgh Steelers stand. Specifically, where Steelers players stand individually based on what we have seen and are seeing over the course of the season and into the offseason as it plays out. We will also be reviewing players based on their previous season and their prospects for the future. A stock evaluation can take a couple of different approaches and I’ll try to make clear my reasoning. In some cases, it will be based on more long-term trends. In other instances, it will be a direct response to something that just happened. Because of this, we can and will see a player more than once over the course of the season as we move forward.
Player: T Zach Banner
Stock Value: Sold
Reasoning: The Steelers officially released sixth-year veteran offensive lineman Zach Banner on Wednesday at the start of the new league year, taking his $5 million base salary off the books and clearing more than $4 million in cap space.
In what was a heavily-forecasted move, the Steelers did indeed decide to release veteran tackle Zach Banner at the start of the new league year, thereby clearing his $5 million base salary owed to him in 2022. The release saved the team a bit over $4 million in salary cap space.
Prior to the move, Pittsburgh agreed to a new contract for Chukwuma Okorafor, the fifth-year tackle who has started 33 games on the right side over the course of the past two seasons. While his deal certainly can’t be construed as a bargain—three years at $29.25 million overall, with $9.25 million guaranteed—that is the going rate for a 25-year-old experienced veteran tackle.
And it also meant that it would be hard to justify paying Banner $5 million this year. The Steelers signed him to a two-year, $9.5 million contract last offseason, which included a $3.25 million signing bonus and a $1.25 million year-one base salary.
The hope was that he was still capable of being the player they expected him to be. Banner actually bested Okorafor in a training camp battle to earn the starting right tackle job in 2020. He started in the season opener, but he tore his ACL on the penultimate drive of the game.
Heading into the 2021 season, with a new contract in hand, he was slated to resume his starting role, with Okorafor—who started every game after the opener at right tackle—due to move over to the left side in a starting role.
But a setback in his recovery from the knee injury landed him on the Reserve/Injured List to start the season. Okorafor moved over to the right side, with rookie Dan Moore Jr. starting on the left. By the time Banner was back on the sidelines, the starting five had already begun to solidify.
It’s also not clear just how healthy he ever got, or even how healthy he is now. He was healthy enough to suit up, but he played all of five offensive snaps and 27 special teams snaps across seven games, getting some tackle-eligible work on the goal line. The team passed up multiple opportunities due to injury to give him an opportunity to start a game late in the season.
That seemed like the curtain call, so his release certainly didn’t take anybody by surprise. He may well find a difficult market for himself ahead. I will not entirely rule out the possibility that he eventually circles back to Pittsburgh on a veteran salary benefit deal, which would allow him to earn up to $1,187,500 this season, which would come with a reduced cap hit of $977,500, or just $272,5000 more than the absolute minimum salary for any player in 2022.