The Pittsburgh Steelers do not have bumper crop of their own players that are set to hit the free agent market in March, and that could make for a relatively inactive free agency period this spring, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have needs this offseason.
So where are the team’s biggest needs of the offseason? As I have in previous years, I’ve brown down the team’s needs into four categories: immediate starting needs, starting upgrade needs, future needs and depth needs.
Monday, we broke down the first of those needs, taking a look at the places that the Steelers have an immediate hole in their starting lineup, which boiled down to really just one of two slots: outside cornerback or slot cornerback.
Today, we’re looking at places where the Steelers have their 2023 starter in line to return, but still might want to find an upgrade at that position this offseason.
STEELERS 2024 UPGRADE NEEDS
The Steelers have not traditionally used their free agent resources on a position where they have an incumbent starter in place. Instead, they’ve usually used free agent money to plug holes while drafting players that could be upgrades.
Last season, they drafted Broderick Jones as an upgrade over Dan Moore Jr. and Chukwuma Okorafor at tackle, Joey Porter Jr. over Levi Wallace at cornerback and Keeanu Benton over Montravius Adams at nose tackle in the first three rounds. All three incumbents remained on the roster. All three top draft picks ended up starting by the end of the year.
These are spots that could be day one or day two selections for the Steelers in the 2024 NFL Draft, but also could not be taken at all if the board does not fall favorably, because those starters do remain in place.
Tackle: Yet again, the idea of drafting an upgrade over left tackle Moore is right in the thick of the Steelers’ draft plan. The Steelers drafted Jones in the first round, trading up to get a player they saw as a left tackle of the future. But it was at right tackle that Jones supplanted Okorafor during the 2023 season. Okorafor remains under contract, but will almost certainly be traded or be a salary cap casualty.
It seems likely that the Steelers would prefer if Jones eventually moves back to left tackle, where he played in college, so the need here could be filled by drafting either a left or a right tackle.
A free agency upgrade at this position would be pricey in addition to not fitting how the Steelers traditionally do business. It’s also one of the deepest tackle classes in memory, with as many as seven players potentially getting taken in the first round this April. It seems like a good bet that one of them will land in black and gold.
Current roster: Broderick Jones, Dan Moore, Chuks Okorafor, Dylan Cook
Center: Mason Cole remains under contract for the 2024 season, but with a disastrous 2023 just closed, it seems unlikely he’ll be in that role for long. Cole had a perfectly serviceable 2022 season, and did so while playing through a lingering foot injury, giving hope that he could be even better in 2023. Additionally, the Steelers secured the spot to his left by going out and getting Philadelphia Eagles stalwart Isaac Seumalo in free agency.
Instead of the hoped-for increase in quality of play, Cole had an awful season, struggling in pass protection and then having a very difficult time getting his snaps to their intended target.
This isn’t a historically deep center class, but there are four targets that rise above in Oregon’s Jackson Powers-Johnson, West Virginia’s Zach Frazer, Georgia’s Sedrick Van Pram and Duke’s Graham Barton. There are free agent options that could be more reasonable if the Steelers don’t like the looks of their chances of getting one of the draft’s top centers.
Current roster: Mason Cole
Slot Wide Receiver: Allen Robinson II didn’t have a great year in 2023, finishing with just 280 receiving yards over 17 games, even while Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth missed significant playing time. There’s no chance the veteran receiver will return at his $11.9 million cap hit, and even if he reaches a deal to return to the team, this is an area the Steelers could look to upgrade.
New offensive coordinator Arthur Smith does not utilize his slot receivers as much as most other NFL coaches do, and the Steelers do also have speedster Calvin Austin III waiting in the wings, so this position might not rise highly in the team’s needs based on slot reps alone, but a better backup for Johnson and George Pickens would be strong addition, as well.
This is certainly a place the team could look to shore up in free agency before the draft, with players like Mack Hollins and Jauan Jennings seeming to fit the team’s blocking and receiving needs.
Current roster: Allen Robinson II, Calvin Austin III
Strong Safety: Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee manned this spot in 2023, and neither looked great doing it. Neal played about a third of the time, but dealt with injuries and was eventually lost for the season. Kazee looked out of place at strong safety, playing his best ball while he was filling in for Minkah Fitzpatrick at free safety or working as the third safety in the team’s heavy Nickel package.
It was very clear that the Steelers missed Terrell Edmunds and his ability to play in the box against the run and also carry tight ends down the field in coverage. They could look to find one of those in free agency — heck, Edmunds himself is there — or this is a place they could give some attention to in the draft.
Neal and Kazee are both currently under contract, so this qualifies as an upgrade need, but if the Steelers land one, you can bet on one of those returning vets being jettisoned to recoup some salary cap space.
Current roster: Damontae Kazee, Keanu Neal
Quarterback: Look, Kenny Pickett wasn’t nearly good enough in 2023, and while it seems likely that the Steelers are going to give him another shot in 2024, that shouldn’t take quarterback off the board entirely when it comes to needs. The Steelers could use to upgrade on Pickett, certainly.
The problem with that idea is that the players that are clear and obvious upgrades are few and far between. The Steelers aren’t getting Drake Maye or Caleb Williams. They could send out a signal flare for a Justin Fields trade or try to swing for Baker Mayfield or Kirk Cousins in free agency. Those seem like unlikely moves, but they are possible, so we’ll include them here. It’s much more likely that the quarterback needs actually addressed will come in the next two installments of this series.
Current roster: Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky
Immediate Starting Needs: BCB or SCB
Upgrade Needs: LT or RT, C, SWR, SS, QB
Future Starting Needs
Immediate Depth Needs