Steelers 2023 Free Agency Primer: Restricted Free Agents

The Pittsburgh Steelers offseason is now officially underway as of this past Sunday afternoon and between now and the start of the 2023 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 four Steelers players currently scheduled to become restricted free agents at the start of the new league year.

Restricted free agent (RFA): A player with three accrued seasons and an expired contract. RFAs are free to negotiate and sign with any team, but their original team can offer them one of various qualifying offers (“tenders”) that come with the right of first refusal and/or draft-pick compensation. If the tender is withdrawn by a team, the RFA becomes an unrestricted free agent.

CB James Pierre – The Steelers had Pierre as a depth piece in 2022 and the former undrafted free agent was able to see spot duty at times on defense and especially after fellow cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon went down with a hamstring injury. In total, Pierre played 260 defensive snaps in 2022 and 196 more on special teams. He finished 2022 with 20 total tackles, one interception and four passes defensed. Additionally, Pierre logged another nine total tackles on special teams and he also recovered a fumble. He was targeted 27 times in coverage in 2022 and allowed 12 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown, per Pro Football Focus. He only missed one tackle on defense, however. The Steelers could do worse when it comes to a depth piece at the cornerback position so with that, I think we can expect the team to issue Pierre a Right of First Refusal restricted tender in the coming weeks. They might even consider signing him to a modest two-year deal as well. He has special teams ability as a gunner and jammer and that plays into his overall value as well. He can also spot start on the outside at cornerback.

WR Steven Sims – Sims started the 2022 regular season as a constant on the team’s gameday inactive lists following him making the 53-man roster out of training camp. When the team needed a more sure-handed return man, Sims started to get a helmet in Week 5. A hamstring injury caused Sims to go back to the inactive list again in Week 7. However, from Week 8 and on, Sims was active for every game. He finished the season with 19 punt returns for 105 yards with a long of 24 yards and 13 fair catches. He also registered 17 kickoff returns for 434 yards and a long of 89 yards. As a receiver, Sims had just 14 receptions for 104 yards on 23 total targets. He did, however, have 13 rushes for another 70 yards. Sims saw his offensive playing time increase quite a bit after the Steelers traded wide receiver Chase Claypool in early November. A good amount of those snaps came in the slot. Will Sims be restricted tendered at the lowest level in the coming weeks? There’s probably a decent chance that will happen and especially if the team thinks he might have to be the returner in 2023. They could, however, gamble with him and attempt to get him back on a minimum salary deal for one year if they don’t tender him. His situation will be interesting to watch play out as it could go either way in when it comes to a restricted tender.

C J.C. Hassenauer – After making the Steelers 53-man roster out of training camp in 2022, Hassenauer proceeded to dress for all 17 regular season games as the team’s backup center. He even dressed over former third round draft pick Kendrick Green. In total, Hassenauer played 46 snaps on offense at center and that’s because the Steelers offensive line remained extremely healthy all season. Hassenauer also logged 71 special teams snaps during the season on the field goal and extra point teams. Hassenauer’s snaps at center in 2022 were merely average and with that, it’s really hard to imagine the team issuing him a restricted tender this offseason. They might wait and try to re-sign Hassenauer to a one-year deal for the minimum and let him return to training camp to fight for a roster spot. Nearly $2.7 million seems way too rich for a player such as Hassenauer but maybe the Steelers will see it otherwise. It’s certainly not out of the question that he receives a Right of First Refusal restricted tender in the next few weeks.

RB Jeremy McNichols – The Steelers signed McNichols right at the start of training camp. The running back suffered as shoulder injury early in training camp and it landed him on the team’s Reserve/Injured list. That shoulder injury was serious enough that it likely required surgery and thus McNichols spent the entire season on the Steelers Reserve/Injured list on a split salary. He certainly won’t be issued a restricted tender of any level this offseason and the team might not even bring him back on a one-year deal for the minimum associated with his credited seasons as well.

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