Stephon Tuitt’s retirement is a big blow to the prospective plans of the Steelers’ defense to be a complete unit. Tuitt missed the entire 2021 season after the passing of his brother and hadn’t shown up to Steelers OTAs without any significant statements from Mike Tomlin or Steelers management on his status.
In Tuitt’s absence, the Steelers dropped from allowing the 11th-fewest rushing yards in 2020 to allowing the most rushing yards in 2021. While Tuitt’s absence was coupled with Tyson Alualu, his presence of being a massive, 6-foot-6, 303 lbs. athletic defensive lineman who took on double teams and got after the quarterback was missed.
The Steelers managed to still lead the NFL in sacks without Tuitt, but there was no doubt his absence put more pressure on others to win their pass rush battles as Tuitt recorded a career-high 11 sacks in 2020. Not having him to play in 2021 was a blow, but his retirement opens a big hole on the Steelers’ roster. He retires with 34.5 career sacks, 19th-most in franchise history.
As a pair, Tuitt and Cam Heyward were possibly the best one-two punch of interior defensive linemen in the NFL. And at 29 years old, Tuitt was only a year older than Heyward was when the Ohio State alum earned his first Pro Bowl in 2017. While Heyward is still an elite player on a defense with other players of the same caliber in T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, losing Tuitt creates a big vacancy.
Not only will Tuitt’s presence on the field be a big hole to fill, but so will his salary cap hit. Tuitt had the third-most expensive salary cap hit for the Steelers in 2022 at $13.97 million. But with his retirement, Tuitt will open up a little more than $9 million in salary cap space while retaining $4.92 million in dead money due to that being his prorated bonus.
That increases the Steelers’ salary cap to approximately $21.5 million for the 2022 season, and $58.9 million for the 2023 season. That’s a lot of money for the team’s new general manager Omar Khan to use to find an addition to the line who could replace Tuitt.
Among the biggest defensive line names available in free agency at this point are Sheldon Richardson, Star Lotulelei, Linval Joseph and Larry Ogunjobi.
However, each of Richardson, Hicks, Lotulelei and Joseph are all in their early 30s as older options who most likely would only be players who could only be serviceable for a likely period of a year, maybe two years. Ogunjobi at 28 years old has five years of experience with 63 NFL starts and has played in the AFC North his entire career–four years with the Browns and one (2021) with the Bengals.
That would make Ogunjobi an favorite of an option for the Steelers to consider. But, Ogunjobi also doesn’t have the best history with the Steelers as he was one of the Browns’ players suspended after the brawl that stemmed from the incident when Myles Garrett struck Mason Rudolph with a helmet in 2019.
It might not be something that automatically disqualifies Ogunjobi, but there’s still plenty of players from that game who are still on the roster, including Rudolph.
The other options for the Steelers to replace Tuitt’s presence is for players already on the roster to step into his role. Alualu and Heyward already make for reliable starters, but who might join them now becomes a pressing question with Tuitt’s retirement.
Chris Wormley is the immediately obvious option after starting 14 games in Tuitt’s absence in 2021 while totaling seven sacks. But his presence in the run game wasn’t enough to replace Tuitt’s contributions as a consistent presence who could withstand double teams without losing ground and keep linebackers clean to make plays.
DeMarvin Leal is the shiny new addition to the defense as a third round pick. He expressed last week during OTAs that he wanted to show his range as a player capable of playing 0-5 technique in the NFL. But Tuitt not being available may press the importance of him playing more inside on the defensive line if the Steelers don’t add another free agent to the group.
Asking Leal to make that big of a leap in his rookie year put a lot of strain on a rookie the Steelers want to groom as a player the defense could use for the long term. Which is why adding a veteran or at least letting Wormley take the initial starts in place of Tuitt would be the ideal move if Mike Tomlin and Karl Dunbar aren’t sure if he’s ready to take the role.
This puts the first real challenging set of decisions for Omar Khan and his staff after his tenure as general manager began last week. If the Steelers feel like their depth on the defensive line is sufficient for the season, that money could go elsewhere on the roster.
That could include anywhere from signing a free agent to another position, or even consider a trade to take a player with a significant cap hit to a team in 2022 whose contract might be up soon. Whatever Khan decides, there must be action. The Steelers should not sit on the open cap space created by Tuitt’s retirement and find a way to further build out the roster with players who can help with depth.