The Tennessee Titans released left tackle Taylor Lewan on Wednesday, which will likely do nothing to tamp down the talk of him potentially joining the Pittsburgh Steelers — much of which has been indulged by Lewan, who pointed out that the likes the way he looks in black and gold and would love to play for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, even before his official release.
But does signing Lewan make sense for the Steelers?
The team is in an interesting salary cap situation this offseason. They don’t have any space currently for the 2023 season. They can make some by trimming some fat on the edges of the roster. They can make some more by restructuring contracts.
They can restructure contracts because the team has money in future years. Assuming normal salary cap movement in the future, Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Diontae Johnson and T.J. Watt will all count for a higher percentage of the salary cap in 2023 than they will at any point in the remainder of their contracts.
When it comes to most of the Steelers’ pending free agents, who are largely younger players looking for their first big contract, that isn’t an issue. The Steelers could structure a contract extension for a player like Terrell Edmunds or Cam Sutton with most of the money pushed to later years in the first place, keeping the initial hit low and minimizing the amount of work the team needs to do to be cap complaint this fall.
However, that contract structure probably isn’t going to fly with someone like Lewan. The 31-year-old has openly contemplated whether or not he wants to continue to play, so it’s doubtful he’s looking for a long-term commitment with most of the cash and prizes at the end.
Unlike the defense, where the Steelers have four vacancies in their starting lineup, on offense, the Steelers already have two tackles. While Dan Moore is on a cheap rookie contract, they are set to pay Chuks Okorafor over $13 million in 2023. Adding another big salary to the tackle position doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
They could sign Lewan and release Okorafor, swapping one big salary for another while taking on a bit of dead cap hit. That would probably be close to salary-neutral for the Steelers, and would probably be a talent upgrade, as well.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lewan has had end-of-season grades of 61.8, 70.9 and 67.3 over the last three seasons. Okorafor has had grades of 57.5, 63.6 and 61.2. That’s a pretty clear upgrade, and if it could be done over salary-neutral conditions, it sounds like a no-brainer.
But it doesn’t factor in Lewan’s injury history. He played just five games in 2020, 13 in 2021 and two in 2022. That’s only one full season over the last three. Not only is it an open question as to whether he will be able to get back to his previous level of play after his latest injury, he hasn’t played a full season of football since 2018.
There’s no way the Steelers could jettison the below-average but reliable Okorafor for a chance at an upgrade with such an unreliable player.
Lewan said earlier that he wouldn’t sign for less than $10 million on a one-year deal. A look at what the market bears may change his mind about that slightly, but either way, it does not seem that he is so motivated to continue to play that he would be willing to sign for a big bargain.
If the Steelers are going to make a splash in free agency, it’s much more likely to come on defense, where they don’t have incumbent starters (and their contracts) to deal with at defensive tackle, inside linebacker, strong safety and cornerback. Upgrades for the offensive line are much more likely to come from the draft.