Ben Roethlisberger
Photo: USA Today

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a disappointing 2018 both on the field, and off. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013 with a 9-6-1 record and had drama off the field from their two best players.

Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire season instead of signing his franchise tag, and Antonio Brown reportedly had a falling out with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers organization as a whole. Both Bell and Brown are expected to be leaving the Steelers either by trade or free agency this offseason, and the talent vacuum will need to be addressed quickly. Second-year phenoms wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner both appear to be more than capable of producing at their respective positions, but talents such as Bell and Brown are nearly impossible to replace.

Even though the offense is expected to take significant losses, it is the defense that is in more need of talent. Offensively, the Steelers ranked in the top 6 in both total yards and points scored in 2018. The defense produced the 16th scoring defense and often had miscommunications that resulted in big plays for the opposition.

The Steelers have a relatively small window to operate as Roethlisberger has already brought the word “retirement” up multiple times in recent years. There is now an understanding that he wants to play for at least two more years, but things change, and his two best weapons are leaving him. This offseason will be vital to bouncing back to the playoffs and hopefully the Super Bowl.

Key Free Agents

The biggest name in Steelers free agency is one I already mentioned, Le’Veon Bell. After sitting out the entire season, the Steelers technically could transition tag Bell to allow them to match any offer given to Bell, but the more likely scenario is that they let him walk. Bell was one of the most productive backs in recent National Football League history over his tenure with the Steelers. In his five year career, Bell has averaged five catches and 128 yards from scrimmage per game.

He is arguably the best offensive weapon in all of football because of his incredible versatility in both the running and passing game. He can run through the A-gap 20 times and line up as a wide receiver for ten routes in the same game. Understanding his impact on a football field, Bell is looking for “offensive weapon money” instead of the traditional running back money. Todd Gurley just received an average of $15 million per year, and Bell wants more. I suspect he will receive a contract similar to Gurley’s this offseason from a team with more cap space, such as the New York Jets or Indianapolis Colts.

Left guard Ramon Foster’s contract ran out after the 2018 season — he is set to hit the market. The offensive line has played together for quite some time and has been one of the top units in the NFL over the last several years, and Foster has been an essential part of that. No guard has played more snaps (almost 9,000) than Foster since he joined the NFL nine years ago. He is a model of consistency and has produced quality play throughout his whole career. He is expected to command a nice contract, and the Steelers are rumored to be willing to let him go.

Coty Sensabaugh came into Pittsburgh as a backup to Artie Burns at the cornerback position. Quickly, Sensabaugh outplayed Burns and took the starting role, ending the season playing 71 percent of total snaps. Sensabaugh has arguably been one of the best defensive backs on the team and has said he wants to stay, “I would like to be back here. I think we have some unfinished business.”

The secondary is seen as the weakest part of the Steelers team and retaining Sensabaugh would prevent another hole needing to be filled elsewhere, especially if the team decides not to keep exclusive rights free agent corner Mike Hilton.

Jesse James is a question mark, as Vance McDonald took over the starting role this year and produced big plays. The Steelers restructured McDonald’s contract, and he is not set to become a free agent until 2022. James is likely to move on after only 30 catches for 423 yards and two touchdowns in 2018.

Decisions will need to be made on a plethora of complementary players for the Steelers such as wide receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter, defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, and high caliber reserve lineman Matt Feiler.

Traditionally, the Steelers are a team that spends little cap space in free agency. They often sign their own developed players to more prominent deals and spend what little cap space they have on lower level bargain deals once the offseason comes around. This year, they have roughly $19 million in cap space before making any cuts.

There are a few moves that the Steelers can use to free up additional cap space this year. Those moves include cutting offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert, who can free up nearly $5 million if designated as a post-June first cut, and linebacker Jon Bostic, which would free up $1.8 million, as well as extend Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey to push money into future years.

Draft and Free Agency Needs

The leading positions of need for the Steelers this offseason include: inside and outside linebacker, (as both positions lack reliable and consistent playmakers outside of T.J. Watt), wide receiver (with Brown possibly leaving), the entire secondary, and potentially an interior defensive lineman to help against the run. The Steelers own the 20th pick in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft and should be able to walk into free agency with over 30 million in cap space.

Kevin Colbert holds the title of general manager in Pittsburgh, but if I had his job, I would narrow down my focus to the defensive side of the ball this offseason. Here is how I would choose to attack each need this offseason:

  • The corner position would be at the center of my mind, as it seems to have been an issue for years in Pittsburgh. Loomis has invested draft picks and cap space into the position but has yet to find the answer. I would look to bring in multiple names in either free agency or the draft to help finally solidify the position. Names to watch for in free agency are Bradley Roby of the Denver Broncos, Pier Desir from the Indianapolis Colts, and Morris Claiborne of the New York Jets. Potential first round targets from this year’s draft could be Byron Murphy from Washington, Deandre Baker of Georgia, or Amani Oruwariye from Penn State.
  • Outside linebacker/pass rusher role needs bolstering. Besides Watt, the team is devoid of any consistent pass rush. Potential free agency targets are Shane Ray from the Broncos, Za’Darius Smith of the Baltimore Ravens, or Jadeveon Clowney of the Houston Texans if they want to spend big. The draft is loaded with pass rushers, and we will see many go before the Steelers, but a few that could reach them are Jachai Polite of Florida, Montez Sweat from Mississippi State, or Anthony Nelson from Iowa.
  • A few other names to keep a lookout for this offseason are wide receivers Chris Conley and Golden Tate, safety Tyran Mathieu, running back Spencer Ware, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and tight end Maxx Williams. Also look to the draft for names such as safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, linebacker Devin Bush, or wide receiver Kelvin Harmon.

This offseason is key to rebuilding some of the defense and keeping weapons around Roethlisberger. The team is not far off from the elite level they played in years past, but more will need to be done this year than a typical Steelers offseason. If the Steelers are going to compete for another championship in any time soon, I believe this is the way to do it.