The Steelers have plenty of work to do when it comes to finding their five starting offensive linemen for the 2021 season.
The turnover at the position started last week, when longtime center Maurkice Pouncey announced his retirement, and is expected to continue through the start of free agency.
From the team’s Week 1 lineup in 2020, starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, starting left guard Matt Feiler and starting right tackle Zach Banner are all set to become free agents. Starting right guard David DeCastro is among a number of Steelers veterans that are potential salary cap casualties as the team sits at approximately $19 million in the red less than a month before the start of the new league year.
That doesn’t leave a lot to lean on, and general manager Kevin Colbert knows that re-building the team’s offensive line is priority number one for the team this offseason.
“We probably have the potential biggest losses in that position group,” Colbert said. “Al is a free agent, Matt Feiler is a free agent, Maurkice has retired, Zach Banner is coming off an ACL, so it is an uncertain group that we have upfront.”
Typically, Colbert would have the full arsenal of possible maneuvers to rectify the situation, from the franchise and transition tags, to contract extensions for pending free agents, external free agents and the draft.
But this season, the team’s salary cap crunch is taking at least some of those off the table. Colbert said Wednesday that the team is unlikely to be able to use a franchise tag this offseason, and with the team already over the cap, there may not be room to sign free agents, either theirs or other teams.
“Hopefully, we will be able to do some type of business in free agency,” Colbert said. “And we are always going to look at our own players first.
But the only place Colbert knows for sure that he will be able to upgrade the position this spring is through the draft, where the Steelers own the No. 24 overall pick in the first round as part of at least seven and probably more draft picks.
“The draft itself, it is stronger at the tackle position than it is at the interior,” Colbert said. “Center and guard, traditionally, is not a very strong group in any draft. The tackles are unusually deep this year. I think we can add players through the draft.”
The Steelers have not had to do that for quite some time. Ramon Foster was with the team from 2009 to 2019. Pouncey was drafted in 2011 and DeCastro in 2012. Villanueva joined the Steelers in 2014. Those four players formed the basis of a strong line for a long time for the team, but it’s clear that the end is near for most or all of them.
2020 rookie Kevin Dotson appears to have the stuff to stick as a starter at one guard spot, but the rest of the team’s line seems lacking in long-term answers as it enters the 2021 offseason.
NBC’s Mike Florio Predicts Dim Outlook for JuJu Smith-Schuster in Free Agency
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is not so sure Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to get the pay day he believes he deserves.
Florio joined The PM Team on 93.7 The Fan on Friday, and painted a dim picture of Smith-Schuster’s free agency prospects.
“If Juju wants to be paid like a No. 1 wide receiver, he’s going to be waiting a long, long time,” Florio said.
Smith-Schuster has expressed a desire to remain in Pittsburgh, but their dire salary cap situation had a made a continuation seemingly impossible.
Now that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has signed a new contract and provided the club additional financial flexibility, there may be a path for Smith-Schuster to return. Still, there will not be enough money available to pay him like one of the league’s elite wideouts.
If that is what Smith-Schuster wants in Pittsburgh, he may be in for a rude awakening as Florio predicts.
Smith-Schuster led the Steelers with 97 receptions in 2020, while also tallying 831 yards and nine touchdowns.
Selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Southern California, Smith-Schuster has 293 receptions, 3,565 yards and 24 touchdowns as a Steeler. He was selected to his first and only Pro Bowl in 2018.
Steelers Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada on Run Game, Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada has spoken publicly for the first time since his promotion in late January.
Canada joined the latest edition of The Standard, the Steelers’ behind-the-scenes web series, and discussed a number of topics, including fixing the run game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his offensive philosophy.
There is no denying Pittsburgh produced the least successful rushing attack in football a season ago, averaging just 84.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per attempt.
Canada recognizes the Steelers need to improve significantly on the ground, a mandate he implied came down from Team President Art Rooney II.
“He’s made it very clear that that’s got to get better,” Canada said. “When all of us realized that we didn’t get it done we wanted to with our running game and all of who are here are part of that. And we’ve got to improve upon it in a multitude of ways and we’re certainly focused on it. We’re globally studying who’s running the ball well. We’ve always believed in running the football anywhere that I’ve been. You win up front. I believe that. We believe that. I know Coach Tomlin believes that.”
Not only will the Steelers have to better impose their will in the trenches, but Canada knows they will also have to remove the predictability that plagued them last season, especially in the passing game.
“You have to be able to run the football when they know you’re going to run it,” Canada added. “And you have to be able to throw the football when they know you’re going to throw it.”
Canada also gushed over Roethlisberger, who the Steelers announced will be returning for the 2021 season on a one-year contract Thursday.
“He’s such a great competitor. He competes at everything he does and his competitive drive is so strong and so awesome to be around no matter what we’re doing,” Canada said of Roethlisberger.
He also praised the 39-year-old’s accuracy, which he believes sets Roethlisberger apart from his peers.
“And then just his accuracy. And I’ve said this to one of my buddies who’s a quarterback coach somewhere else. Young quarterbacks, I wish there was some way for them to be here and watch how he practices putting the ball in certain spots. It’s such a unique talent that he’s able to do it.”
While Roethlisberger’s new deal has provided the Steelers some much needed financial flexibility, they will still undoubtedly have some tough departures once free agency begins in earnest.
Regardless which players do or do not remain in Pittsburgh heading into the 2021 season, Canada insists his offense will be multi-dimensional and cater to whatever personnel the Steelers have on the offensive side.
“We are going through and looking at the foundation of our offense. And building an offense that will be conducive to whatever talent that we have,” Canada said. “I don’t believe you have a certain system that works and this is all we’re going to do and we have to have the players for that. We have the players we have each year. Our job is to score more points than the team we play on each Sunday.”
Steelers Sign Center J.C. Hassenauer on One-Year Deal
The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed center J.C. Hassenauer to a one-year deal, first reported by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
Steelers sign center J.C. Hassenauer, an exclusive rights free agent, to a one-year deal, per source.— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) March 4, 2021
An exclusive right free agent, Hassenauer was almost a lock to return to Pittsburgh in 2021. His new deal with the Steelers is worth $780,000.
Hassenauer proved a vital piece along the Steelers’ offensive line a season ago, seeing action in 15 games and making four starts. He was on the field for 23% of the team’s offensive stats, while also appearing on 50 special teams plays.
Prior to Pittsburgh, Hassenauer signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2018, spending the first seven weeks of the season on their practice squad.
He played for the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football in 2019.
Hassenauer played his college ball at Alabama. He made just three career starts for the Crimson Tide, with his final coming in the 2018 College Football Playoff national championship game, a 26-23 overtime win over Georgia.
Hassenauer’s agent Blake Baratz confirmed the signing on Twitter on Thursday.