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SN Debate: Steelers’ Most Important Non-QB Free Agent

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Pittsburgh Steelers James Daniels

Kevin Colbert made sure to set the Pittsburgh Steelers up with several new additions in free agency before he retired. Outside of Mitch Trubisky, the biggest additions were linebacker Myles Jack and guard James Daniels.

But Colbert’s replacement, Omar Khan, made a quick addition with defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi after the Steelers’ minicamp ended. Which one will have the biggest impact? That’s the topic here of our sports debate, as Cale Berger and Chris Carter debate which player they see as the most important.

CHRIS CARTER, ARGUING FOR JAMES DANIELS:

The Steelers are in a full rebuild of their offense without Ben Roethlisberger. While that puts a lot on Najee Harris and Mitch Trubisky as playmakers, the Steelers’ offensive line plays a huge role in their climb back to the middle of the league.

That’s why James Daniels is the most important non-quarterback of the Steelers’ free agent additions. We’ve already heard from Steelers offensive linemen who say that Daniels has ascended to leadership for the group. If Daniels can be the new anchor for the line, it gives the Steelers a factor they were missing in 2021.

Not only would a stabilized offensive line help protect Trubisky or Kenny Pickett in the backfield, but it would give Harris a real chance to be a game changer in the run game. Either improvement would be the biggest impact the Steelers could get from their newest free agents.

CALE BERGER, ARGUING FOR LARRY OGUNJOBI:

The Pittsburgh Steelers have made a number crucial and necessary free agent signings this offseason to address significant shortcomings from the 2021 season.

While they did retool their offensive line and bolstered their linebacker room fairly early in the process, the move that will prove to be most impactful in the long run came far later in the game.

Following the sudden retirement of Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers signed former Browns and Bengals defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi on June 23.

Ogunjobi is coming off the best season of his career having recorded seven sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss for the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals. That kind of production is just what the doctor ordered for a Pittsburgh unit that was abysmal defending the run a year ago.

In pairing Ogunjobi with T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers may now have the most formidable defensive front in the entire division, which is good news for a Pittsburgh team that will be leaning heavily on their defense this upcoming season.

CHRIS CARTER

If you don’t think a single offensive lineman can make a difference, look back at how the Steelers performed with a healthy David DeCastro even when Maurkice Pouncey was hurt. DeCastro was presumed to return healthy for the 2021 season until he retired after the NFL Draft due to a needed surgery.

That left the Steelers with limited opportunities to replenish the line with draft picks and top-line free agents and led to Trai Turner’s one season with the Steelers. Turner was a veteran, but past his prime and not the reliable anchor who looked to be part of some long term plan.

Turner was supposed to be presence that helped ease Kendrick Green into the center role. That experiment went so poorly the Steelers let Turner go back into free agency and now Green competes with Kevin Dotson for the left guard spot.

The Steelers need Daniels to solidify the Steelers’ offensive line with Mason Cole at center and the left guard battle. Pouncey made a huge impact as a rookie in 2010 in the Steelers’ ascent from missing the playoffs in 2009 to AFC champion in 2010. While he didn’t fix the entire line, his presence allowed others to rely on his talent to fill a key role while each other player focuses on their roles.

Daniels has starting experience at left guard, center and right guard from his time with the Bears. If he can be a significant upgrade as a right guard starter, the offensive line immediately improves. But if Daniels either shows up as the leader that stabilizes the entire line or a reliable option to help at multiple positions, he goes a long way to fixing the offense.

CALE BERGER

To fully comprehend just how important Ogunjobi is to Pittsburgh’s run defense, it helps to look back on just how putrid they were in 2021.

The Steelers were the worst run defense in football a year ago surrendering 2,483 rushing yards and a ridiculous five yards-per-carry. They also allowed 13 runs of 20 yards or longer and 144 first downs via the run, which both led the league as well.

Situationally, the stats are even more damning. Opponents averaged 5.2 yards-per-carry on first down. 6.2 on third. 13 of the 17 rushing touchdowns allowed by the Steelers came in the red zone.

I expect Ogunjobi to have an instant impact that should go a long way towards making the Steelers run defense respectable once again.

How do I know that? Because that is exactly what happened following the acquisition of Ogunjobi in Cincinnati last season.

The Bengals were the NFL’s fourth-worst run defense in 2020 allowing 148 yards per game. After signing Ogunjobi, Cincinnati brought that average down to just 102.5 yards a contest, the fifth-lowest total in the league.

Pittsburgh’s depth along the defensive line has gone from questionable to impressive in a short amount of time following Ogunjobi’s signing.

After having just Heyward and Chris Wormley inside at some points last season, the Steelers now have a deep rotation behind their starters that also includes Tyson Alualu, Montravius Adams, Isaiahh Loudermilk and more.

One way to dramatically improve your run defense is to have a continuous rotation of capable bodies, a luxury Ogunjobi has now provided them.

While I’ll concede that the addition of guard James Daniels does improve Pittsburgh’s offensive line, that unit will have significantly less pressure on them than they did last year.

Whether Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett wins the starting quarterback job, the offensive line will no longer have to protect the stationary, immobile Ben Roethlisberger. The athleticism and mobility Trubisky and Pickett bring significantly eases the burden of the offensive line, as the quarterback now has a fighting chance to evade what pressure does break through.

As for the run game, Harris is entering his second season with an entire year and 307 carries under his belt. That experience will see him improve his vision as a ball carrier, meaning he will be better equipped to hit holes and capitalize on seams during his sophomore season.

CHRIS CARTER, CLOSING ARGUMENT

The leadership component to Daniels’ addition to the Steelers also doubles with the potential to have a long term impact. As a second round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft, he represents the highest selected player on the Steelers’ offensive line. But at 24-years old, he also looks to be a player who could have a lasting impact on the unit.

Mike Tomlin and Khan know they will have to reinvest into the offensive line soon. But if Daniels can represent a new anchor to the line in the way Pouncey, DeCastro or Marcus Gilbert did in the mid 2010s, the Steelers would have a piece to that puzzle without a single draft pick spent.

And if the Steelers selected an offensive lineman in the first round for the first time since they picked DeCastro in 2011, that rookie in 2023 would have an established mentor and leader in Daniels. Offensive line looks to be the weakest position group on the Steelers roster. If Daniels reverses that, it makes him the top free agent addition.

CALE BERGER, CLOSING ARGUMENT

Ogunjobi initially signed a three-year, $40.5 million deal with the Chicago Bears when free agency began. He was shaping up to be a strong contributor in the interior of their defense up until a failed physical caused the franchise to retract their contract offer.

That sent Ogunjobi back to the open market and provided a path for the Steelers to medically clear him and eventually sign him on a significantly cheaper one-year, $8 million contract.

While certainly a bargain for Pittsburgh, Ogunjobi’s influence on their run defense will be anything but. A borderline Pro Bowler prior to his injury last year, adding Ogunjobi will prove quite the heist for new Steelers general manager Omar Khan.

Paired with Cam Heyward in the interior, I fully expect Ogunjobi to turn around Pittsburgh’s porous run defense in record time just as he helped do in Cincinnati.

YOU PICK THE WINNER

Steelers' free agent James Daniels or Larry Ogunjobi to have bigger impact?

  • Carter: James Daniels (77%, 24 Votes)
  • Berger: Larry Ogunjobi (23%, 7 Votes)

Total Voters: 31

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LEADERBOARD

Alan Saunders 1-0
Chris Carter 1-1
Nick Farabaugh 0-1

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