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Saunders: Ranking Summer Priorities for Steelers GM Omar Khan

Columnist Alan Saunders ranks what should be the contract priorities this summer for Pittsburgh Steelers GM Omar Khan.

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Pittsburgh Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth lines up during OTAs on June 4, 2024. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers are on a five-week break following the end of minicamp last week, as they spend tome time resting and recuperating before the grind of training camp at St. Vincent College starts on July 24.

The Steelers players will enjoy some R&R, but expect general manager Omar Khan to be working during the break, putting the final touches on the roster ahead of camp, and also dealing with the bumper crop of contract extensions that have an early September deadline, as Khan said he’ll be continuing the Steelers tradition of not negotiating in season.

So what should the priorities be for Khan and his staff over the next five weeks?

GET A NEW DEAL DONE WITH PAT FREIERMUTH

Wide receiver is the sexy addition the fanbase has been clamoring for. Cam Heyward has been the loudest about wanting a new deal. But the thing that makes the most sense for the Steelers to get done is a contract extension with tight end Pat Freiermuth.

Freiermuth has always looked like he’s been capable of being a lot better player than his statistics have suggested over his first three seasons in Pittsburgh. Now, he’s about to be put into an offense that loves to throw the ball to tight ends.

Last season, Atlanta Falcons had 174 passing targets go tight ends for 114 receptions, 1,380 yards and seven touchdowns. With respect to Darnell Washington, Connor Heyward and MyCole Pruitt, Freiermuth is in line for the vast majority of those targets this year.

In 2022, he had 98 targets for 732 yards. It would not be a stretch to see him gain 1,000 yards this season. What Freiermuth has done is certainly less impressive than what he figures to do. That is a very good recipe for a relatively team-friendly contract extension.

Pittsburgh Steelers Treylon Burks

Titans wide receiver Treylon Burks against the Pittsburgh Steelers, November 2, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

ADD TO THE WIDE RECEIVERS ROOM

The big splash that many have been clamoring for is starting to feel unlikely at this point, as trade talks have gotten quiet around the league. Courtland Sutton has been saying he wants to stay in Denver, Tee Higgins signed his franchise tag, and Brandon Aiyuk and the 49ers can’t be too far apart, after San Francisco extended a $26 million per year offer his way.

The kinds of moves that more often made closer to the season involve not the cream of the crop, but players that have been displaced on their roster. While the Steelers may not be shopping at Nordstrom’s, their lack of depth in terms of playmakers makes a trip through the thrift store a worthy investment.

Someone like former Tennessee Titans first-round pick Treylon Burks would be well worth taking a flier on, just to add some speed and upside to a room that lacks both.

FIND A MIDDLE GROUND WITH CAM HEYWARD

The Steelers don’t need to rush into anything with Heyward, especially because the flexibility of his $16 million 2024 salary could play a big part in what they want to do elsewhere. If a big-time wide receiver trade does come available, being able to extend Heyward to make room for it should be a trump card Khan keeps unplayed in his hand.

But at some point before the end of the season, the Steelers should find a way to lock up Heyward for the next two seasons. Unless the club wants to use consecutive first-round picks on defensive tackles, or spend twice as much in free agency as its will take to get a deal done with Heyward, it’s hard to imagine them replacing him in that time span.

Even playing hurt last year, he was one of their better defensive linemen, and even as he ages, solid rotational linemen are extremely valuable. Calais Campbell got $25 million over his age 35-37 seasons, and just signed for his age 38 year. Heyward is a better player at this stage of his career.

Heyward wants to be here, so there’s no reason to rush into a move. Wait for the timing to be right.

RELATED: Final Word: Do Steelers Need Deal with Cam Heyward Before Training Camp?

DO SOMETHING THEY SAID THEY WOULDN’T

None of the team’s quarterbacks are signed beyond 2024, and Najee Harris is a pending free agent after the club declined his option, but honestly, the next thing I’d be looking at doing is working out a contract extension for guard James Daniels.

Daniels might not be a tailor-made fit for Smith’s offensive scheme, as somewhat of a better pass protector than run blocker, but he was probably the team’s best offensive lineman in 2023 and figures to be that again in 2024.

He’s still a very young 27 years old. For a team that is looking to build around their offensive line, it’s hard to come up with a better building block than a long-term deal for Daniels.

He said he’s been told already that nothing will happen this offseason, and an exploding market at the guard position this year might make a deal difficult, but as we’ve seen with the first three years of Harris, the talent at running back doesn’t matter that much if it doesn’t get quality blocking.

RANKING THE REST

A new deal for Harris makes sense for the team, but only if it’s one that comes in well below market value. I can’t see Harris agreeing to that. If he does, great. If not, no deal is better than a bad one.

The quarterback situation is a deeply weird one. I’d want to see what Russell Wilson has left in the tank before going down the extension route with him. Justin Fields, on the other hand, is such a great athlete, that he’s going to have at least some value for the foreseeable future. Again, I’m not sure why he’d want to sign here long term without first earning a role, but the Steelers should let him if he wants to.

The team seems pretty well positioned depth-wise, but one area where they could make an addition is outside linebacker. Nick Herbig appears poised to take over the No. 3 role, but it’s a pretty wide open competition between youngsters behind him. Adding a vet to the mix wouldn’t hurt.