The Forgotten Element Of Steelers’ Free Agency

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ free agency outlook is generally viewed in two buckets. The defense, full of interesting names and starters. Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds, Larry Ogunjobi. Whose staying, whose going? Important questions. The offense falls on the other end of the spectrum. Zach Gentry, Trent Scott, not exactly names that will make or break the franchise.

But there’s a third lens that needs to be looked at. The impact and potential losses of Steelers’ special teamers.

Seven Steelers logged over 200 special teams snaps last season. They are:

FB Derek Watt – 290
SS Miles Killebrew – 290
TE Connor Heyward – 284
RB Benny Snell – 284
EDGE Jamir Jones – 251
ILB Marcus Allen – 230
WR Miles Boykin – 207

Four of those seven, more than half the list, are slated to hit unrestricted free agency while a fifth, Jamir Jones, is exclusive rights (meaning he’s virtually guaranteed to return if the Steelers want him). Putting Jones aside, the Steelers could potentially lose 1,011 special teams snaps across the four others. A massive number of snaps on the chopping block.

Love it or not but the Steelers always like to have a couple of core special teamers on the backend of their roster. Guys who don’t contribute much, if at all, on their side of the ball but focus on running downs kicks and punts, and blocking in the return game. It’s possible Pittsburgh has to entirely restack that deck this off-season. Watt is 30 and isn’t a top-end coverage guy anymore. Snell may want to go somewhere new with a chance to be part of a running back rotation, he won’t crack it in Pittsburgh, while Allen’s antics may cause the Steelers to willingly move on while Boykin may want to be on a team that will use him as a receiver instead of just a blocker/gunner.

Yes, it’s more likely than not that some of those names return. But there’s no guarantee. And until it happens, it’s something to watch.

If an offense or defense was at risk of losing more than 1,000 snaps, and especially such a high percentage of the total it’d generate headlines. It’s why the defense is generating so much interest. The starters this team could lose and have to replace. It may be one reason why the Steelers signed WR Dan Chisena to a Reserve/Futures contract, a pure special teamer in three years with Minnesota.

Now, sometimes change is for the better. Pittsburgh’s special teams were lackluster in most phases this season. Kick coverage in particular was a sore spot. So some new faces aren’t inherently a bad thing. But anytime you make major changes to a unit, there’s uncertainty. There are likely to be growing pains as new pieces try to fit into place and establish roles and earn trust.

For a team like the Steelers who play in so many close games, no one has more since Mike Tomlin took over in 2007, special teams is vital. They’re often the difference between games won and games lost. It’s not just about the conventional thinking of covering kicks and punts. It’s about setting up blocks for the Steelers’ own returns or protecting Pressley Harvin on the punt team or the punt rush unit trying to make a splash play that could change the game, as it did twice in 2021.

All of this can be couched in the understanding there still seems to be some uncertainty over the group’s longtime coach, Special Teams Coordinator Danny Smith. A football coach since 1976 and in the NFL since 1995, retirement isn’t out of the question and local beat writers haven’t said it’s assured Smith will return. He’s a football lifer who has admitted he doesn’t have any other hobbies and if he was hanging up his whistle, we probably would’ve known by now. But retirement decisions can’t be rushed and given his tenure with the organization, Mike Tomlin likely would be willing to give him all the time he’d need.

But at this point, I’d venture a guess that Smith will return. What players he’ll be coaching is a different story.

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