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Bell: Five Thoughts from First Wave of Steelers Free Agency

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Steelers LB Patrick Queen
Pittsburgh Steelers LB Patrick Queen

You can make a real argument that this past week has been one of the most eventful in Steelers franchise history. Even though this stage of the offseason is far from over, it’s worth taking a step by to reflect on everything that has transpired over the several days. Here are some of my big takeaways from Pittsburgh’s early transactions.

Out With the Old

The biggest and most important news of the off-season so far has been the Omar Khan’s willingness to upgrade the quarterback position. Most, including myself, believed him when he said that he had full faith in Kenny Pickett despite the fact that nothing in his play warranted anyone’s confidence.

A pair of unique circumstances fell right into his hands and he pounced on the opportunity, first to sign nine-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson to a one-year contract for the veteran minimum. The 35-year old didn’t live up to lofty expectations in Denver but he was still a league average starter but one that wasn’t worth a historically expensive contract.

Wilson gives the Steelers an experienced winner at the position, with some playmaking ability left and a knack for throwing the deep ball. This move prompted Pickett’s exit to Philadelphia, with Pittsburgh acquiring another top-100 pick in the process. With starting jobs being filled elsewhere, Justin Fields was left without a spot at the table, allowing Khan to swoop in for another bargain. For just a sixth-round pick, Fields gives the Steelers some insurance in case Wilson struggles or gets injured. However, Khan’s process here is what is so impressive. Taking multiple swings at the games most important position is encouraging, especially when you factor in the low cost associated with the moves. In just a matter of days, he upgraded the quarterback room in a way that no one could’ve predicted.

Trade Under Review

When it comes to football analysis, it’s natural to give instance reaction to a big move. However, the jury is still very much out on Diontae Johnson trade. On the surface, the details looked ugly. Pittsburgh had just traded their former number one receiver for a cornerback that was set to be released, and a late round pick swap. But now that Donte Jackson has reworked his contract, the Steelers will net roughly $10M in cap space with this exchange which makes it much easier to understand. The Steelers needed to get faster on defense and their moves reflect that philosophy. Even after tearing his Achilles in 2022, Jackson still has enough speed to carry threats vertically on the perimeter which was previously lacking in last years unit.

Adding veteran experience opposite Joey Porter Jr. was necessary and this addition doesn’t prevent them from adding more talent to the group. At this point in his career, Jackson’s still capable of being a top-three corner on a good defense, even if his play is rather volatile. Both the Steelers and Johnson needed a fresh start away from one another and that’s important context to remember the reason this deal transpired in the first place. However, until we find out how they use the money they’ve freed up, it’s difficult to grade the return. What is certain, is that the Steelers need to be carefully searching for another playmaker on the outside to help fill that void next season. 

Center of Attention

When free agency kicked off, there were quite a few centers available in various different price tiers. Pittsburgh didn’t sign one. Not only that, there’s hasn’t even been any reported interest in doing so. That’s a bit surprising because when you look at the roster, there’s not a clear cut answer as of right now aside from possibly James Daniels, their current starting right guard. Several of the wide zone capable pivot men are now under contract with other teams which begs an important question: What exactly is the plan at center? 

Traditionally, the Steelers would at least sign low-tier, cost-friendly free agents as a place holder until a rookie draft pick was ready to step up. One exception to this rule came back in 2021 when the Steelers drafted Najee Harris in round one, avoiding the position entirely in the off-season leading up to that selection. Maybe they’re dead set on a particular center early in the draft: Jackson Powers-Johnson, Graham Barton or Zach Frazier? Of course, the issue with this is that you’re pigeonholing yourself into solely drafting for need instead of talent, which has potential negative ramifications. Either way, this is one piece of the puzzle that remains a complete mystery at the moment. 

Premium Player Vs. Premium Position

When you hear the words premium position come up during football discourse, the linebacker position isn’t usually mentioned. Pittsburgh seems to prioritize premium players over premium positions, as evidenced by the record-setting contract that they gave Minkah Fitzpatrick a couple summers ago. Just a couple days into free agency, the Steelers made Patrick Queen the 6th-highest paid off-ball linebacker in all of football. Acquiring the athletic, ascending 24-year old was a shrewd move. Not only did they fill a need in the middle of their defense, they weaknesses the Baltimore Ravens roster in the process. At three-years, $41 million, Queen received the largest contract that the franchise has ever handed out to a free agent. 

Because of this, the expectations will be high and rightfully so. If you look at the tape, you’ll see a player talented enough to pay off this investment and then some. Over the past two seasons, the former-first round pick has morphed into one of the most impactful second-level defenders in the sport. Thanks to his range and three-down ability, he should be able to step right in and give Pittsburgh the type of player that they’ve been desperately searching for over the past several years. If Queen comes anywhere close to maxing out his potential, the positional value argument will mean absolutely nothing to the folks in the building. 

Arthur Smith’s Influence

The quarterback carousal in Pittsburgh has surely been keeping new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith on his toes. With the offense under heavy construction at the moment, it’s been difficult to get a read on how much pull he has as of right now. On one hand, Pittsburgh just acquired multiple signal callers who have shown a tendency to avoid the middle of the field, a staple of his offense. On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s first receiver addition was former Rams wideout Van Jefferson, who Smith traded for last season as the head coach of the Falcons. As the off-season marches forward, it’s going to be fascinating to see how they build the offense in his image.

There’s still a couple starting positions that need to be filled. One potential option is former Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams, who just so happens to have an early identical build to a pair of Smith’s former targets, Drake London and Corey Davis. We know George Pickens is the front runner to be the number one guy but will they look to add another playmaker with size on the outside? You can feel the urgency in the franchises decisions right now and Smith’s impact will go a long way in determining their fate at the end of the season. That’s a lot of pressure but if he succeeds, there will likely be more opportunities awaiting him.