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Steelers Commentary

Saunders: Steelers in Roster Crunch of Their Own Making at C, WR



Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson HC Mike Tomlin
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and wide receiver Diontae Johnson at training camp on July 30, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had another well-regarded start to their offseason, with general manager Omar Khan getting praise for navigating three moves to improve his team’s quarterback position and snatching defenders Patrick Queen and DeShon Elliott away from divisional rival Baltimore Ravens.

But there is still a long way to go for the Steelers to be considered true contenders in the AFC North, and in particular, the team’s inaction at two positions — center and wide receiver — has set the 2024 NFL Draft as a must-hit for Khan and his team.

That has left the Steelers’ 2024 offseason very undecided in terms of a final grade, as the Steelers are depending heavily on being able to find multiple starters in the draft or late in the free agency period, and it’s all been by their own hand.

Take three critical positions for the Steelers: wide receiver, cornerback and center. When the Steelers entered the offseason, they had Diontae Johnson opposite George Pickens at wide receiver, Patrick Peterson opposite Joey Porter Jr. at cornerback and Mason Cole at center.

The Steelers released Cole and Peterson, saving the club $4.75 million by cutting Cole and $6.85 million by releasing Peterson. To replace Peterson, the Steelers traded Johnson to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for Donte Jackson. They saved $4 million in that exchange after Jackson agreed to take a pay cut. After roster displacement, the Steelers saved $12.7 million in the series of moves.

The team has gone from having Cole, Johnson and Peterson to having Jackson and $12.7 million in cap space.

The problem is, they haven’t spent the $12.7 million in cap space. According to the latest Steelers Now estimate, the club has $12.1 million of offseason salary cap space. Now, the team has to clear room for known upcoming offseason expenses to the tune of about $16 million. But the Steelers have also yet to renegotiate a contract with an existing player this offseason. Between Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Alex Highsmith alone, the club has the ability to move about $25 million in salary off the books for 2024.

The Steelers signed a 35-year-old staring quarterback in Russell Wilson to a one-year deal. It’s clear they’re focused on making a splash in 2024. So it doesn’t make any sense to go into the season with extra cap space available.

I’m not saying that’s what Khan has intended — in fact, it’s pretty clear that he did not intend for this to happen — but the free agent market at both of the Steelers positions of needs is getting thin. Before free agency even started the Steelers hosted ex-Buffalo Bills starting center Mitch Morse on a visit, the same day that Wilson came to Pittsburgh. That was the last center they have been seriously linked to.

They had a free agent visit scheduled with Mike Williams before he signed his deal with the New York Jets. There was a contract offer made to Tyler Boyd, but the two sides couldn’t get together on a price. Now, there are scant few difference-making players left on the open market at either position.

I’m not suggesting that Khan should make a bad deal, just for the sake of making a deal. It’s too early in the offseason to panic. But it is clear that if Khan doesn’t make a deal and a good one — or doesn’t absolutely nail the draft — that the Steelers offseason will not have reached its full potential.

The draft is a likely target for these needs, but the Steelers have others. They would like to replace Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle by flipping Broderick Jones to his natural side, but lack a replacement right tackle. They need a future replacement for the 35-year-old Heyward at defensive tackle. They don’t have a slot cornerback with NFL experience on the roster. They only have four picks in the first two days of the draft, and they have five pressing needs to fill with them. It’s a near-impossible needle to thread.

The Steelers were better with Cole, Johnson and Peterson than they are today. They made the decisions to move on from those players, and they didn’t need to do so for salary cap purposes. So one way or another, they pressure is on to come up with an upgrade at center and wide receiver.

Until they do or they don’t, it’s going to be pretty hard to evaluate the Steelers’ offseason, despite the strong moves at the quarterback position.