The Pittsburgh Steelers have a new offensive coordinator in Arthur Smith, and while the team is still working on filling out its coaching staff, the front office’s attention will soon turn to free agency, where a number of players that have played for Smith before will be on the market this March.
Which of the players in Smith’s history would make for a good fit for the Steelers in 2023? Let’s take a look.
QB Ryan Tannehill
35 years old, 2023 AAV $29.5m
This is the big name on the list, as it’s the most notable name with history with Arthur Smith and also a position of need for the Steelers.
Tannehill had a pretty forgettable 2023. He got hurt, played in only 10 games, and lost his starting job to Will Levis in the process. He posted his lowest completion percentage (64.8%) since 2018 in Miami and his lowest passer rating (78.5) since his rookie year. His adjusted net yards per attempt were a paltry 4.39.
There’s plenty of reason to believe that Tannehill just might not have it anymore, but he ended his 2023 season on a high note that belies that line of thinking. Over the last three games of the season, Tannehill completed 71% of his passes, had a 92.8 passer rating and a 6.71 adjusted yards.
That will play just fine. So which Tannehill would the Steelers be getting? Well, it will be up to Smith to know that for sure. The positives are clear. Having a quarterback already familiar with the system would let Smith spend almost all of his time getting Kenny Pickett as ready as possible in his new offense.
Spotrac’s projection has Tannehill signing for a one-year deal worth $4.9 million, well within the Steelers’ price range for a second quarterback.
RB Derrick Henry
30 years old, 2023 AAV $12.5m
There is no reason to think the Steelers would be willing to spend top dollar on a free agent running back with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren already jockeying for carries, but it is fun to think about.
QB Marcus Mariota
30 years old, 2023 AAV $5m
Mariota is the other big-name quarterback on the list. He spent 2023 as the backup to Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia after things didn’t work out with the Falcons in 2022.
Mariota started 13 games in Atlanta that year, posting an 88.2 passer rating and a 5.85 adjusted net yards per attempt. He was replaced by Desmond Ridder, who wasn’t able to replicate those numbers over his two seasons, let alone better them. Taylor Heinicke didn’t do any better in 2023, either.
It’s fair to wonder if Mariota would want to follow Smith again, given how things worked out in Atlanta. But after playing with him at two previous stops, it’s clear he would also be very familiar with the scheme.
RB/WR/KR Cordarrelle Patterson
32 years old, 2023 AAV $5.25m
Patterson was one of the unquestioned highlights of Smith’s tenure in Atlanta. The former wide receiver and kick returner became a part-time running back in New England in 2018, but it wasn’t until he got to Atlanta that he really unlocked that part of his game. Patterson ran 153 times for 618 yards and scored 11 total touchdowns in Smith’s first year in 2021. He followed that up with 144 carries for 695 yards and eight touchdowns in 2022.
Patterson suffered a thigh injury and was pushed down the depth chart by the acquisition of Bijan Robinson in 2023. He finished with 50 carries for 180 yards and nine catches for 38 yards. It seems unlikely he’ll be re-signed in Atlanta.
The Steelers don’t have a player like Patterson, who could also help fill the role of a bigger slot receiver to go along with Calvin Austin III.
C Aaron Brewer
26 years old, 2023 AAV $4.3m
The Steelers have a need at center, with Mason Cole struggling in 2023 and entering the final year of his contract. It seems like a solid draft class, but if they’d prefer to get that spot locked up ahead of time, they could do a lot worse than Brewer. An undrafted free agent that Smith helped pluck out of Texas State in 2020, Brewer started one game as a rookie, five in 2021 and then became a full-time starter in 2022. He had his best year in 2023, with PFF giving him a 71.6 grade over his 17 starts. He’s better in run blocking than pass blocking, but would be an immediate run-blocking upgrade over Cole while still possessing some upside as a relatively young free agent. This is a player to watch for the Steelers.
WR Calvin Ridley
29 years old, 2023 AAV $2.73m
Who knows if the Steelers would want to go down this road. Ridley, who was suspended for all of 2022 for illegal gambling, returned to play in 2023 with a good amount of success, going over 1,000 yards for the second time in his career and averaging 13.4 yards per reception.
The big-play artist is in line for a big pay day — Spotrac estimates a market value of $17 million average annual value — and the Steelers don’t seem to have the need or cap space to take on such a move. The one exception might be if it came alongside a trade of Diontae Johnson. Ridley’s deep-ball proclivities may make him a more attractive fit in Smith’s offense.
WR Mack Hollins
30 years old, 2023 AAV $2.5m
Hollins joined the Falcons as a free agent last spring and did not have a great season, catching 18 passes for 251 yards after making 57 grabs for 690 and four scores with the Raiders the year before despite finishing second among wide receivers in targets.
A big body (6-foot-4, 221 pounds), Hollins can play inside and outside, and could represent a replacement for Allen Robinson II, if the Steelers don’t want to bring back the veteran. Hollins feels like a strong potential fit.
FB Keith Smith
31 years old, 2023 AAV $2.35m
The Steelers don’t have a true fullback on their roster, and Arthur Smith has used Keith Smith for that role the last three years in Atlanta. Fullbacks really don’t have much in the way of stats. PFF was unkind to Smith in 2023, giving him a 47.2 overall grade.
The Steelers can use Connor Heyward in that role, or try to find a rookie somewhere — if they feel it’s necessary to have one at all. Just because Arthur Smith has in the past doesn’t mean he will in the future.
RB D’Onta Foreman
27 years old, 2023 AAV $2m
The Steelers probably will look for more youth in a third running back, but they could do worse than Foreman, who will be cheap after rushing for 425 yards in nine games in Chicago in 2023.
WR Van Jefferson
27 years old, 2023 AAV $1.4m
The former Los Angeles Rams receiver came over to Atlanta in a mid-season trade in 2023. He’s 6-foot-1 and has played inside and outside. He was even less productive than Hollis in 2023, catching 20 passes for 209 yards, and isn’t as good of a blocker. It’s hard to imagine Jefferson as a great fit with the Steelers.
G Aaron Stinnie
29 years old, 2023 AAV $1.4m
Stinnie played for Smith in Tennessee, then headed to Tampa Bay, won a Super Bowl, and was finally a starter in 2023. He’s a good hand, but the Steelers don’t need a guard.
WR Nick Westbrook-Ikhine
26 years old, 2023 AAV $1.27m
Westbrook-Ikhine has been a reliable option for the Titans for three years now. He seems stuck, production-wise, turning 45-57 targets into 370-476 yards and three or four touchdowns. That’s not bad for a third or fourth option, and his 50-50 split between slot and outside reps is desirable. He has a big body at 6-foot-2, 211 pounds and could provide depth on the outside and a bigger slot presence in one fell swoop. His predicted market value of one year, $2.5 million seems like a deal in a league full of overpriced wide receivers.
WR Scotty Miller
26 years old, 2023 AAV $1.23m
A Super Bowl champ with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miller was another Atlanta free agent signing last offseason. He was a core special teamer for the Falcons and Bucs, and could be a candidate to replace Miles Boykin in that role with the Steelers.
The downside to that idea is that as a receiver, the 5-foot-9 Miller replicates a lot of what the Steelers already have in Austin.
WR Olamide Zaccheaus
26 years old, 2023 AAV $1.23m
Zaccheaus spent four years in Atlanta and had his best season with Smith in 2022, when he started 13 games and caught 40 passes for 533 yards and three touchdowns. A free agent in 2023, he caught on with Philly and was barely used in the Eagles’ offensive attack, catching just 10 passes.
At 5-foot-8, 193 pounds, Zaccheaus has the same height problems as Austin, but he is thicker-bodied and could handle traffic in the running game and blocking assignments better.
G Elijah Wilkinson
28 years old, 2023 AAV $1.23m
While Wilkinson spent one season under smith in Atlanta in 2022, he’s firmly a journeyman at this point, playing for four teams in the last four seasons. Again, the Steelers don’t need a guard.
TE MyCole Pruitt
31 years old, 2023 AAV $1.22m
The Steelers do not have an obvious need at tight end, with the foursome of Pat Freiermuth, Darnell Washington, Heyward and Rodney Williams all set to return. But Pruitt was with Smith in Tennessee and then came to join him in Atlanta, so we shouldn’t discount him making another stop with his coach. If the Steelers move Heyward to fullback permanently, Pruitt could backfill as a reserve tight end.
WR KhaDarel Hodge
29 years old, 2023 AAV $1.2m
Hodge spent the last two seasons as a reserve receiver in Atlanta, Hodge was targeted just 23 times all season despite starting four games. He caught 14 passes for 232 yards. Less production than Jefferson at two years older makes him a very unlikely option.
C Matt Hennessy
26 years old, 2023 AAV $1.19m
Hennessy was a third-round pick of the Falcons in 2020 before Smith and was named a starter at center in 2021 in the midst of what was a catastrophically bad offensive line in Smith’s first season. He remained there until he lost his job after an injury in 2022. Hennessy then missed all of 2023 with a knee injury in training camp.
If the Steelers want to draft a center, and cut Mason Cole, Hennessy could be a cheaper option to hold the door for the draft pick than Cole would be.
RT David Quessenberry
33 years old, 2023 AAV $1.08m
Quessenberry is another journeyman, though Smith is the one that gave him his big break as a first-time starter in 2020. He went on to start all 17 games for the Titans in 2021 and then moved on to Buffalo in 2022 and Minnesota in 2023. The Steelers probably don’t need a tackle, if they intend to draft one, which they seem to.
QB Logan Woodside
29 years old, 2023 AAV $950k
Woodside was the third quarterback behind Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke in Atlanta in 2023 and also played for Smith in Tennessee. If the Steelers don’t end up drafting a developmental prospect, the 28-year-old would be a fine QB3 option.