With the 2022 NFL season fully in the rear-view mirror with the completion of Sunday’s Super Bowl, let’s turn our attention fully to the Pittsburgh Steelers and their 2023 offseason.
The Steelers have a bumper crop of their own players that are set to hit the free agent market in March, and also likely have eyes on upgrading some position groups after a 9-8 season left the team on the outside looking into the 2022 NFL postseason.
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.
Today, we’re looking into the future from 2023 to the places where the Steelers might want to plan ahead for future needs this offseason.
FUTURE STARTING NEEDS
When the Pittsburgh Steelers were at their absolute best in the early part of this century, they were able to use their draft class to address future needs instead of plugging immediate holes. Ben Roethlisberger only played as a rookie because of two injuries. Troy Polamalu barely played as a rookie at all. More recently, Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree took three years to reach the starting lineup.
The Steelers roster is far from that at this point, but they still may look to address future needs, especially when it comes to the draft, and those are just the first-round picks. Many times, a later-round pick is taken with the idea of possibly developing them into a future starter.
So where should the Steelers look if they want to address their needs for 2024 and beyond in this year’s draft class?
Defensive tackle: Cam Heyward is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. He will also be 34 later this spring. Defensive tackles can play a long time if they want to. They question here will be more about how long Heyward wants to than anything else.
He’s openly talked about uncertainly about next season, let alone many after that. Sooner rather than later, the Steelers are going to need to think about their next big man up front.
It’s worth remembering that Heyward didn’t start until his third season. The Philadelphia Eagles got Jordan Davis with the No. 13 overall pick this spring and only started him five games. Defensive tackle is not a position where rookies often thrive. So even if the Steelers address their immediate defensive tackle need via free agency, this is certainly a position that they could double-dip in.
The Steelers also like to play a deep rotation, most of which is scheduled to become a free agent. They do have some depth in the form of Isaiahh Loudermilk, but a projectable rookie at defensive tackle that could learn behind Heyward for a year or two before taking the reins would set the Steelers front line up for a long time to come.
Players signed through 2024: Cam Heyward, Isaiahh Loudermilk
Inside linebacker: The same things that can be said about defensive tackle can be said about inside linebacker, except the future issue with Jack is his contract, not his age.
Jack is signed through 2023 and that’s all, and though Robinson showed promise as a rookie, the Steelers don’t currently have someone that appears ready to step into a starting role that soon.
This is a position that they also have an immediate need, for a player to start alongside Jack. If they do something like re-sign Robert Spillane on a three-year contract, that would mean they could still be in the market to draft a rookie with the eye toward him replacing Jack in 2024.
Players signed through 2024: Mark Robinson
Cornerback: Cam Sutton is a free agent, and the team is likely to part with one or both of William Jackson III and Ahkello Witherspoon as cap casualties. That creates an immediate opening at cornerback, which we covered on Monday.
But even if that immediate opening is filled, there’s a future need at the position. Outside starter Levi Wallace and slot corner Art Maulet will be a free agent after the 2023 season.
Of the realistic starting internal options for 2023, Sutton, Wallace and Witherspoon are 27, Maulet is 29 and Jackson is 30. Even if Sutton and is retained or replaced going into 2023, this is a unit that is overdue for an infusion of youth with future potential. Players like Wallace and Maulet won’t break the bank to re-sign when they hit free agency, but that’s also part of the problem. Some youth with some upside would go a long way.
Players signed through 2024: Tre Norwood
Outside linebacker: The Steelers have a ton of business on the docket this offseason when it comes to re-signing players about to hit free agency, adding free agents from other teams and hitting the 2023 NFL Draft scouting process.
But one thing that can’t be forgotten is that Alex Highsmith, the team’s burgeoning start at right outside linebacker, will be entering his contract year. The Steelers do not negotiate during the season, so if they want to get Highsmith locked up before his final season, that will have to happen this summer.
The Steelers’ salary cap situation is not particularly conducive to adding another big contract at the moment, though. Faced with this same scenario with T.J. Watt’s counterpart a few years ago, the Steelers let Dupree’s contract run out, franchised him for one season, and then let him walk in free agency to the Tennessee Titans. They could opt to take the same strategy with Highsmith.
If they do, outside linebacker certainly becomes a position with a future starting need, in addition to the immediate depth need at that spot this offseason. More on that tomorrow.
Players signed through 2024: T.J. Watt