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Saunders: Steelers WR Situation Is Self-Inflicted Mess

The Pittsburgh Steelers still don’t have an answer at No. 2 wide receiver, and the trade market is dwindling.

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Pittsburgh Steelers GM Omar Khan HBCU Legacy Bowl Salary Cap
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Omar Khan before a game against the New England Patriots on Dec. 8, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Three months after trading Diontae Johnson to the Carolina Panthers, the Pittsburgh Steelers are still in pursuit of a replacement to be the team’s second starting wide receiver to pair with George Pickens.

Rumors continue to swirl around the potential availability of San Francisco 49ers star Brandon Aiyuk, but other than that, the trade market seems to have mostly dried up around the NFL at this point in the offseason.

Aiyuk will demand to be paid like one of the top wide receivers in the entire league, and will also likely require a hefty payment to the 49ers in terms of draft capital to acquire. That’s an awkward fit for the Steelers, a team that doesn’t have a quarterback under contract beyond 2024, and also has significant future needs on the defensive line.

But as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers. The only wide receiver that appears that he might be available or any time soon will be one of the most expensive in the entire league. If general manager Omar Khan wants to make an upgrade at this point of the season, that might be the price he has to pay.

RELATED: Farabaugh: This is the Biggest Hurdle for Steelers Landing Brandon Aiyuk

Pittsburgh Steelers Trade Target San Francisco 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk warms up before a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

While a lot of the conversations surrounding Aiyuk have been about whether it would be worth it for the Steelers to make a blockbuster swing at wide receiver now, Khan’s inactivity has left open the question about whether he should have done more earlier to address his wide receiver position.

Multiple sources close to the team told Steelers Now this spring that trading Johnson was more about his personality and locker room fit than his playing ability, and that the team was concerned about his influence on Pickens in the wide receivers room. The club was even considering cutting him before the deal with Carolina for cornerback Donte Jackson materialized.

But it does not appear that anything acute happened that caused Johnson to be traded when he was. Nothing changed with Johnson’s locker room fit between the end of the 2023 season and him being traded to Carolina on March 12, one day after the start of free agency. So it seems clear that the Steelers had an idea they’d be moving on from their former No. 1 wide receiver this offseason early enough to plan for that contingency.

Which makes the team’s inactivity in the free agent market curious, to say the least. It wasn’t exactly a bumper crop of free agents at the position, but the only reported interest the Steelers had was exchanging figures with Tyler Boyd and inviting Mike Williams for a free agent visit. He ended up signing with the New York Jets instead.

There were a solid dozen other free agent options that the Steelers could have considered this offseason, none of which are making anywhere near the $30 million per season that Aiyuk is reportedly after, none of which would have cost a first-round pick to land in a trade, and all of which would represent an upgrade on the team’s current wide receiver situation.

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Tyler Boyd

Cincinnati Bengals WR Tyler Boyd against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dec. 23, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

2024 NFL WIDE RECEIVER FREE AGENT CONTRACTS

Calvin Ridley, four years, $92m
Stefon Diggs, trade plus one year, $22.5m
Jerry Jeudy, trade plus three years, $52.5m
Darnell Moody, three years, $39m
Gabe Davis, three years, $39m
Mike Williams, one year, $10m
Curtis Samuel, three years, $24m
Hollywood Brown, one year, $7m
Kendrick Bourne, three years, $19.5m
Josh Reynolds, two years, $9m
Devin Duvernay, two years, $8m
Noah Brown, one year, $4m
Odell Beckham Jr., one year $3m
DJ Chark, one year, $3m
Cedrick Wilson, two years, $2.9m
Ray-Ray McCloud, two years, $5m
Tyler Boyd, one year, $2.4m
Source: Spotrac

None of those players is necessarily the same kind of needle-mover as Aiyuk, but they’d certainly be better off right now having made nearly any of those moves compared to what they have.

Aiyuk is an awkward fit because of the future more than 2024. The Steelers don’t know what they’ll need to do at quarterback going forward. They know they need to invest in the future of the offensive line. George Pickens could be a due a hefty extension soon.

Paying a top-flight wide receiver $30 million a year is fair market value, but it might not be what the Steelers need to be doing in the future, despite their current need. But a free agent signing could have been for any length. Gabe Davis seems like a perfect fit in Arthur Smith’s play action and deep shot offense. He could’ve been had for $39 million for three years. There was no reported interest in Pittsburgh.

It’s understandable that they might’ve sat out in trade talks with Stefon Diggs, since the whole reason they were moving on from Johnson was personality fit in the first place, but I’ve never heard anyone say a negative word about Curtis Samuel. The Steelers love their Ohio State Buckeyes. He left an awful situation in Washington, and is a player that could definitely break out in a new scheme. He went to Buffalo on a very reasonable deal.

There is still time for Khan to make a move at wide receiver and rectify the current hole in the depth chart. But if the Steelers go into the season without a significant upgrade at wide receiver, it looks like Khan should have been more proactive in replacing Johnson than he was.