As one of our annual Pittsburgh Steelers’ offseason exercises, I’m offering a short “wishlist” of free agents who are sensible and logical fits. This list is really more of a mix of names who make sense at positions of need and the best fits there. I wouldn’t bang the table for all these guys but they’re good fits for where the team is at.
I’ll have a defensive wishlist later in the week. Truthfully, that list will probably look a little more exciting. But my goal with these aren’t to offer just the flash names everyone talks about but mid and low-tier free agents that could be financially-friendly signings and depth options.
Dontrell Hilliard/Tennessee Titans
This is only relevant *if* Benny Snell leaves. If he stays, there’s no need to add another veteran back. But Snell is a free agent and if he walks, there isn’t a clear #3 RB on the roster, at least not one who can help out on special teams. Anthony McFarland is a bit-return man at best. That’s it.
So with that in mind, Hilliard is a replacement. I’m looking for three things here: size, special teams value, and not a lot of production to make a guy want to come be a #3 running back in Pittsburgh without any assurance of playing on offense. Hilliard goes 5’11, 202 pounds and saw 200 offensive snaps last year but also logged 117, more than 1/3, on special teams. He recorded seven total defensive tackles. A cheap option here who would closely serve as a 1:1 Snell replacement.
Travis Homer/Seattle Seahawks
Homer’s body type is a little different, not quite as burly-looking as Snell, but he’s not small at 5’10, 201 pounds with good speed and athleticism and third down ability. Homer has even more special teams value and experience than Hilliard with over 700 snaps there throughout his career with 26 total tackles, including nine in 2022. A cheap and still young option, not turning 25 until August, that’s pretty attractive.
Zach Pascal/Philadelphia Eagles
The Steelers could use an experienced, veteran, and versatile receiver in their room. Pascal checks every box. 28 years old and five years in the league, he signed a cheap one-year deal with the Eagles in 2022. His overall production was pretty light, just 15 receptions, but he wore a lot of hats. He played in the slot (62%), he played outside, he played on special teams (246 snaps, seven tackles) and he blocked in the run game.
Pascal has been a quiet Steelers’ killer. He’s played in three career games against Pittsburgh. In each of those games, he’s found the end zone for a total line of 10 receptions for 197 yards and three scores. That included his most statistically significant game in 2022 as an Eagle, catching two passes for 57 yards and this touchdown in a blowout win over the Steelers.
And here’s his 2020 touchdown as a Colt, running past the Steelers’ defense on this post for a 42-yard score.
Plays the Steelers probably haven’t forgotten about. Pascal has size at nearly 6’2, 220 pounds and is regarded as a plus blocker. Though I don’t like to lean on external subjective grades often, PFF graded Pascal as the third-best wide receiver run blocker in the league last year with a 76.7 grade.
Combine all that with the fact he won’t be expensive, he played for the minimum last season and is coming off a far statistically worse season than he did in 2021, he’s a perfect choice for Pittsburgh.
Parris Campbell/Indianapolis Colts
If you want to set your sights on someone a bit bigger, Campbell is a fine choice. A big slot receiver the team had and then lost/dealt in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool, Campbell has never quite lived up to his second-round billing when drafted by Indianapolis in 2019. But he doesn’t turn 26 until August and could be a starting or heavy rotational player in the slot next season. He logged 82% of his snaps in the slot this past season, an underneath threat averaging just 9.9 yards per reception. That sorta fits how the Steelers’ offense has been utilizing the position in recent years.
Still, this past season, he flashed his YAC ability that got him drafted out of Ohio State.
Campbell’s been bothered by injuries throughout his career and 2022 was the first season he played more than eight games in a year. That’s an obvious concern but he did show good health last year and it’ll help keep his price tag down. Pittsburgh isn’t going to want to spend big money here.
Drew Sample/Cincinnati Bengals
Thinking real economical here if Zach Gentry leaves, though my money is on him returning. Sample was a second-round pick of the Bengals in 2019, billed as a good-sized blocker out of Washington. His career never really got off the ground. He had one semi-notable year in 2020, catching 40 passes, but has been a reserve player the last two seasons. In 2021, he was almost exclusively a blocker with over 400 snaps and only 11 catches while he barely played in 2022, in part due to an October knee injury. He shouldn’t cost more than the minimum and while he doesn’t have the height and overall frame Gentry brought, he is 255+ pounds and has good length with nearly 33 1/2 inch arms.
Jesse James/Cleveland Browns
The free agent tight end market is pretty weak, especially in terms of the size/blocking types. So why not a reunion with James, who the Steelers drafted as a raw junior out of Penn State in 2017. He’s more refined now and has similar size to Gentry as a #2 blocker.
Since leaving Pittsburgh to take good money in Detroit, his NFL career was withered away. Things bottomed out in 2022 with Cleveland logging only 18 offensive snaps and not catching a pass. He’s a classic minimum benefit contract deal to see what he has left. Pittsburgh knows him as well as anybody and he wouldn’t prevent this team from looking for another TE in the draft, it’s a strong class, should Gentry leave. Even if Gentry is re-signed, James is decent insurance and would give the team a fourth tight end in camp. He may have once called the Steelers The Kardashians but if he wants to keep playing, he won’t have many options.
Cameron Erving/Carolina Panthers
Now we’re talking about an area the Steelers really need to invest in. They may not pay the price for a starter, that’s the correct move, but depth here is ugly and must be addressed in free agency and the draft. Erving is the most logical candidate thanks to his connection with OL Coach Pat Meyer. He worked with Meyer in Carolina for the 2021 season and we’ve already seen Meyer bring over one ex-Panther to the Steelers when the teams signed OT Trent Scott last season.
A former first-round pick who just turned 30, Erving was only used as a tackle-eligible in 2022, replaced by first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu. But he served as the team’s left tackle for a large chunk of 2021 and has played all over the line throughout his career with starts at center and right guard. He’s certainly not an All-Star but he’s an upgrade and his play has improved since his early-day struggles as a Cleveland Brown. Good luck finding any talented backup offensive linemen for relative cheap. They’re all going to have issues.
Andre Dillard/Philadelphia Eagles
However, if you did want to make a big swing, by Steelers’ standards anyway, Dillard is about as big as you’re going to get. He has the pedigree of a former first-round pick and the connection to assistant GM Andy Weidl, who was in Philadelphia when the Eagles took Dillard 22nd overall in 2019. That was Weidl’s first year setting the draft board.
Dillard only started nine games in Philadelphia in part due to the team striking gold in former rugby player turned OT Jordan Mailata into a stud while Lane Johnson held down the right side. Dillard had an injury of his own this season, missing the first half of the year with a broken arm and only played 37 offensive snaps in 2022. Good news, that’ll keep his number down. Not turning 28 until the fall, he can be signed to compete with Dan Moore Jr. for the left tackle job with the loser becoming the backup.
Chris Hubbard/Cleveland Browns
Plenty of reunions on this list. Hubbard hasn’t played a lot of football the last two years, largely functioning as a backup. But he’s always been known for his versatility and has logged NFL snaps at all five spots, though the vast majority of them have come at right tackle.
He’s about to turn 32 but the Steelers have brought back older free agents in past years, names like Bryant McFadden and Antwaan Randle El. Another dirt-cheap option who won’t be guaranteed a roster spot but can play around the line in the summer and wear lots of hats. He’s a bit like Joe Haeg, who didn’t play much the two years before coming over to Pittsburgh.
Trey Pipkins/Los Angeles Chargers
Again, we’re working the Pat Meyer connections. Pipkins was drafted by the Chargers in 2019 when Meyer served as o-line coach, his final year before moving on to Carolina. Pipkins was a small schooler and lump of clay coming out of tiny Sioux Falls College, a good athlete with length and size (6’6, 309, nearly 34-inch arms). In 2019, via The Athletic, Meyer praised Pipkins.
“He said Pipkins is both “very intelligent” and “very conscientious.” And that makeup — along with the veteran leadership of Okung — has allowed Pipkins to make these considerable strides this season.
“When you get a kid like that, you treat it as kind of a blank slate,” Meyer said. “Not to say that the coaches who had him before didn’t teach him. It’s just different at this level. It’s different techniques. So it’s like a blank slate. You get a blank slate and it takes a while to do it and it’s just some kids learn quicker than others. And he’s a fast learner.”
Pipkins started 14 games at right tackle last season but also has 331 career snaps at left tackle and he served as a starter there throughout college. A guy who can compete with Moore though there’d be no promise of him doing so. He probably wants some money and an honest shot to compete and perhaps Pittsburgh isn’t the best fit here but I like connecting the tea leaves and Meyer’s ability to sell Pipkins on Pittsburgh. Let’s get Trey Pipkins blocking for Kenny Pickett so he can throw to George Pickens.
Nick Allegretti/Kansas City Chiefs
Throwing one more generally unheralded name into the mix. Allegretti is young, coming off his rookie deal, a former 7th-round pick who has stuck around. He’s a big body with experience at center and guard. Most of his work has come at left guard, but he has over 100 snaps at right guard and even played 13 as an emergency center across two games this season. His college background also showcased his versatility with starts at the pivot and at guard.
I’d prefer a veteran tackle over an interior guy but I like Allegretti as a versatile guard/center than J.C. Hassenauer, whose tender is a bit tough to justify and he doesn’t have as much size to competently play guard. Some will quickly compare him to Kendrick Green, especially since they both went to Illinois, but Allegretti is bigger and has proven more on Sundays. And we’re not talking about a huge sum of money here.