Passing On RFAs Leaves Steelers’ Depth Rather Restricted

The Pittsburgh Steelers had three meaningful contributors enter this offseason as potential restricted free agents (plus another who was never a factor). They decided not to tender any of them, and that exposes the team to losing valuable depth if they can’t make alternative arrangements.

The three significant players in question are cornerback James Pierre, wide receiver Steven Sims, and offensive lineman J.C. Hassenauer. I thought both Pierre and Hassenauer, or at least one of the two, would receive a tender. Now they are free to sign with any team.

Of the three, I might argue that Hassenauer is the most significant even though he played rather little last season. Without him, they do not have a backup center beyond Kendrick Green and Ryan McCollum, though James Daniels is capable of sliding over to center in a pinch. That would be no better than an emergency option, however.

As for Sims, his primary asset last season was his return ability. He would be more ideally suited as a fourth or fifth wide receiver, but the Steelers benched Gunner Olszewski as a returner last year. Are they ready to go back to him? Who else would they consider?

Pierre is valuable both on defense and on special teams. He played more than you might have realized last season — he logged 260 defensive snaps — considering that he only started two games. He had a more regular sub-package role as the season progressed.

How the depth shakes out, either for the plus or the minus, remains to be seen. If the Steelers release cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, for example, then their depth would get very thin very quickly behind Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson. And they don’t have another reserve lineman worth putting on the field at center right now. Not to mention the return man they benched.

None of these are unsolvable problems, however, even without bringing the relevant parties back. Cornerback, wide receiver, and center are all positions that they could target early in the draft, but the Steelers typically try to leave themselves with as few holes come draft time as they can manage.

The lowest restricted tender for the 2023 season was $2,627,000, the deadline for which is now passed, which is why we’re talking about this now. The Steelers have tendered players of similar stature in the past, some even higher, such as when they gave B.J. Finney a second-round tender in 2019.

Pittsburgh may well prefer to make alternative arrangements with these players, possibly working out multi-year deals for some. That strategy might pay them similarly to the tag in the long run but with a lower year-one cap hit. They do prefer multi-year deals with their own players.

For now, however, the decision to let these players hit the free market creates holes on the roster that perhaps we might not have been anticipating. In other words, there are more problems that must be solved over the course of the offseason.

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