Pittsburgh Steelers Offseason Game Plan, Part 2: Players
The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Season is over after their disappointing 31-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park. This latest First-Round Playoff debacle has fans of the team questioning the very fabric and culture of the team they love to their core. This is an NFL franchise built on championships, and have been far from that level since at least their 2016-2017 AFC Championship appearance. The City of Champions is beyond restless at this point. They are starved for a real contender, especially when it comes to their favorite NFL team.
Fortunately for Steelers fans, with the close of the disappointing 2023 season comes a season of hope. As the new horizons of the offseason get underway, I wanted to give my personal blueprint for the Steelers to make the leap from also-ran to contender in 2024. We already looked at the coaching staff in Part 1. For Part 2, let’s take a look at what needs to be done to field a real contending roster next season.
FIX THE FINANCIAL SITUATION FOR 2024
The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the offseason with questions on both sides of the ball from a player personnel standpoint, but before they can even begin to think about adding better players, they have a lot of work to do on the salary cap. Currently projected to be almost $15M over the cap in 2024, moving money around is the first priority.
The good news is the Steelers can easily restructure several big contracts to reduce their cap hits in 2024. T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, and Minkah Fitzpatrick carry the largest hits for this coming season, and all three of them could see restructures this offseason. There are others in the mix for restructure as well.
Now it’s time to make cuts. If I’m running the show in Pittsburgh, the following players are out in 2024:
DT Larry Ogunjobi
WR Allen Robinson
OT Chuks Okorafor
CB Patrick Peterson
QB Mitch Trubisky
C Mason Cole
FS Damontae Kazee
Without getting into the exact numbers of dead money and cap space saved (Go as Dave Schofield for all that), these 7 players would give the Steelers plenty of wiggle room to sign multiple starting-caliber players at positions of need, and could put them in the market for 1 or 2 high-priced free agents at positions like QB and CB.
Personally, I have 100% faith in GM Omar Khan to get the Steelers financials settled in order to do whatever they deem necessary to build a contender in 2024. At that point, it’s on the Steelers talent evaluators to add the right players.
GET YOUNGER AND MORE ATHLETIC IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DEFENSE
It flew a little bit under the radar in 2023, but the Steelers DL was not its usual dominant self for the majority of the year. The biggest reason for that, obviously, was Cam Heyward missing 8 weeks with a groin injury and then never really getting fully healthy all season. The rookie 2nd rounder, Keeanu Benton, showed flashes of immense talent and looks like a potential foundation piece for this defense moving forward.
The Steelers will have to attack this position from multiple fronts if they want to trot out a unit acceptable to their lofty standards for DL play. A healthy Cam and an experienced Benton are a good start, but cutting ties with Ogunjobi to reduce that cap hit and using the savings to go after a Free Agent starting option like Daquon Jones (BUF) is a necessity in my book. On top of adding a FA, the Steelers should prioritize DT in the early portion of the NFL Draft as well. Getting a solid run-stuffing prospect in the 3rd or 4th round could help round out the position that already has some decent depth pieces in Loudermilk and Leal.
My biggest concern for this defense is at Inside Linebacker, where the Steelers roster desperately needs an athletic playmaker in the middle directing traffic for the defense. If you look at the AFC and NFC Championship squads you see incredible athletes at that position like Fred Warner, Roquan Smith, and Nick Bolton. I’ll say it until I die: the Pittsburgh Steelers are never right on Defense unless they have a difference-making star at inside linebacker.
The best way to solve this is through the draft, where you can get a dynamic, young athlete for cheap on a four-year Rookie deal. Prospects like Clemson’s Jeremiah Trotter, Jr. and Texas A&M’s Edgerrin Cooper are elite athletes and could be in the mix for the Steelers early in the draft. If the team decides to re-address this group through Free Agency, there are some interesting names there as well (Devin White, Patrick Queen, Tyrel Dodson, etc.). This position has to be a priority for Pittsburgh in 2024.
The final spot to address along the “spine” of the defense is at strong safety, where the Steelers should look to sign a mid-level free agent (Terrell Edmunds, anyone?) and go after a dominant enforcer in the Draft. It’s harder to find those Ryan Clark and Cam Chancellor types at SS these days, with college programs featuring more hybrid-type players at safety. One name to watch: James Williams. The former Hurricane can play LB or SS and is a massive 6’4″ and 230 lbs. A perfect height, weight, speed guy with coverage skills and who knows how to use the “hit stick”.
RUN IT BACK AT QUARTERBACK AND SOLIDIFY THE OFFENSIVE LINE
On offense, there are three obvious glaring needs to address, and the Steelers may find that the most important of those needs, the Quarterback, is something that there isn’t a real answer for in 2024. With Arthur Smith expected to sign a contract in the coming days to be the next Offensive Coordinator in Pittsburgh, it speaks volumes about where the Steelers believe they are from a talent perspective on offense. They see themselves as a run-first team that will need to scheme up a passing attack predicated on play action and making things easy for the QB. Smith’s offense fits that mold.
If I were Tomlin, I would prioritize getting Mason Rudolph back in 2024 to compete with Kenny Pickett for the QB1 job. The winner would be the team’s starter for the season, and if that person is Rudolph, you can move on from Kenny in 2025 without any reservations. If Kenny wins the starting gig, he’ll need to show enormous growth from his first two seasons to Year 3 and prove he has the ability to be a productive passer in today’s game.
There’s no sense in pursuing a high-priced Free Agent QB this offseason when you have so many other needs, specifically on Defense. Ride with Kenny and Mason and chase the franchise QB in 2025 if neither one proves to be that guy this season.
The other two needs on offense are clearly along the offensive line at Right Tackle and Center. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the draft is loaded with impressive talent at both positions early in the draft. Don’t be surprised if the first two selections for Pittsburgh in April are at these positions. If I were in that front office, I’d be targeting one of the elite RT prospects in Round 1 like Tyler Guyton or Amarius Mims and circle back to grab one of the top Centers in Round 2. Graham Barton and Zach Frazier could be available early Day 2.
That will do it for this mini-series highlighting my offseason gameplan for the Pittsburgh Steelers, if you missed Part 1, you can find it here. If the Steelers can maximize their financial resources and deftly navigate both Free Agency and the Draft, they can definitely put together a contending squad in 2024 in the AFC and their division. We’ll see how it plays out.