With the Steelers’ 2023 offseason underway following a disappointing season that came up just short of reaching the playoffs, it’s time reload, through the free agency process, through the draft, and perhaps even through trade.
This is now a young team on the offensive side of the ball, though one getting older on defense. Both sides could stand to be supplemented robustly, including in the trenches—either one. Changes have been made to the coaching staff, even if not all of the desired ones, as the roster continues to renew with the weeks ticking by.
These sorts of uncertainties are what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
Topic Statement: Cornerback James Pierre is the most important Steelers free agent remaining the team should re-sign.
Explanation: Among those free agents still on the market are tight end Zach Gentry, lineman J.C. Hassenauer, running back Benny Snell Jr., safety Terrell Edmunds, fullback Derek Watt, wide receivers Miles Boykin and Steven Sims, and tackle Trent Scott.
After last season, the Steelers can’t possibly hope to count on Ahkello Witherspoon at the cornerback position, and the odds of Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace each playing 17 games as outside starters is rather low.
James Pierre knows the system well and has seemed to respond to defensive backs coach Grady Williams as well. He could be ready for that complementary role; at the very least, he would help plug a hole to prevent the team from making a rash move in the draft.
Gentry, Hassenauer, and Edmunds are all valuable players, as are others not mentioned here, but they are more easily replaced. The Steelers already re-signed Damontae Kazee, who can take over Edmunds’ starting job, while Pierre could help contribute in sub-packages.
Gentry’s in-line blocking role needs to be replaced, but it doesn’t have to be by him, and he seemed to regress in this area last season if anything. The Steelers could add another free agent tight end who is a little more solid as a blocker, and it wouldn’t take as much adaptation to get used to the system. As for Hassenauer, they’re a bit loaded on the interior offensive line right now. All of their top four at the position are capable of playing center in a pinch.
The case for Pierre is legitimate, but if the Steelers valued him as much as that, they would have retained him as a restricted free agent. Witherspoon had a bad year, yes, but that doesn’t reflect his total body of work, and even if the Steelers don’t draft a cornerback in the first round, they’re highly likely to draft one relatively early.
Hassenauer would be the only natural center among reserves if he were brought back. Nate Herbig is center-capable in an emergency, but I would rather have Hassenauer start a game if it were necessary. The Steelers don’t like playing musical chairs, moving multiple linemen to accommodate for one injury, and that would mean James Daniels or Isaac Semualo has to start brushing back up on center.
Gentry’s value should not be overlooked, on or off the field. At this point, it’s not likely that he would cost much, and he’s still growing. There’s value in keeping targets around Kenny Pickett as well.
Then there’s Edmunds. Yes, they re-signed Kazee, but Edmunds is the starter. He’s just looking for the best possible deal he can find for himself. The Steelers want a three-safety package, not a two-safety package. They know their best sub-package has both of them on the field with Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The only reason he’s not re-signed yet is because of the money. Time will work that out for them as the market dwindles. Unfortunately for Edmunds, the Steelers already got their bargaining chip by holding onto Kazee.