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With free agency waning, are the Steelers better or worse than they were last season?

Of all the things you can say about the 2024 off-season so far for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one thing is certain:

It has not been boring.

The Steelers have been one of the most interesting teams in the league with their aggressive approach to re-shaping their roster during free agency. They are among a host of teams who have attacked the new league year, using the increased salary cap and an unusual number of available high-profile players to make bold moves. Some pundits who cover the league have deemed the Steelers “winners” for their approach, while others have suggested they are among the teams who have improved the most.

Still, as we sit here today, less than four weeks from the draft and roughly a month from the start of OTAs, there are significant holes to fill. Active as general manager Omar Khan and Company have been, this is by no means a complete roster. Are the Steelers better now than they were when last season ended? That’s an interesting question that deserves inspection. Let’s take a look by examining each position group and determining whether it is better or worse in its current state.

Quarterbacks: Better

Swapping Kenny Pickett, Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph for Russell Wilson and Justin Fields while somehow saving money and improving their draft capital was nothing short of larceny. Khan may have done his finest work yet as GM in re-making this group. Holding on to Pickett and either re-signing Rudolph or adding a lower-level veteran like Ryan Tannehill would have been understandable. You could have built a logical argument around giving Pickett the opportunity to establish himself under a new coordinator with a better supporting cast. Instead, Khan swung for the fences. In landing an accomplished veteran in Wilson and the uber-talented Fields, the Steelers are betting they can turn the potential of those two into something bigger and better. It’s a bold move by Khan that suggests he believes the Steelers can compete for a championship in 2024. That sort of thinking has to play well in the locker room. Let’s just hope it plays well on the field, too.

Running Backs: Better

Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren comprised one of the most successful running back duos in the league last season, combining for over 2,300 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns. Both return, which bodes well for this unit. So, too, does the addition of veteran Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson is a tough, versatile player who can run, catch and block. His running style — downhill, physical, often angry — gives the Steelers three backs who can wear on opposing defenses. The Steelers will want to run the football in new coordinator Arthur Smith’s scheme. The 6’1-240 pound Harris, 5’9-215 pound Warren — who plays more physically than his size — and 6’2-220 pound Patterson give Smith three backs who will test the resolve of a defense over a sixty-minute contest. In a league where all the rage on offense is horizontal expansion, expect the Steelers to put big bodies on the field and try to knock defenses off of the ball. Their running back room is perfectly constructed for that approach.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Worse

By trading Diontae Johnson to Carolina, the Steelers may have engaged in addition by subtraction. Johnson was a me-first guy whose effort and attitude was often called into question. He also did not appear to be a great fit for Smith’s offense, where blocking and physicality are non-negotiables. Still, parting with Johnson’s production is an issue. Johnson led the Steelers in targets each year from 2019-2022 before falling behind George Pickens last season. Pickens will again be targeted frequently in 2024, as should Pittsburgh’s tight ends, on whom Smith leans heavily. But the addition of free agents Quez Watkins and Van Jefferson has done little more than add depth to the receiver room. Pittsburgh still needs a starting-caliber receiver to play opposite of Pickens. There have been some negotiations with Tyler Boyd, and the Steelers are almost certain to use a fairly high pick on a receiver in the draft. But as it stands right now, it’s hard to argue this position group has improved from last season.

Offensive Line: Worse

This is another group where a subtraction seemed necessary. Mason Cole was a decent stop-gap at center when he was signed in 2022 to replace the overmatched Kendrick Green. But Cole’s performance regressed in 2023, and he is not the physical player the Steelers need to succeed in Smith’s scheme. Moving on from Cole was understandable.

As with Johnson, though, the Steelers are yet to add a suitable replacement. The best free agent centers have all signed with other teams, which means the Steelers will either have to take a flyer on a player like Brian Allen, who has struggled with injuries and lost his starting job with the Rams last season, or wait for the draft to select Cole’s replacement. As deep as this draft is with centers, it’s risky business banking on a rookie to claim the starting job in training camp. Surely, the Steelers would prefer a veteran to hold down the fort until whomever they draft has had some time to gain his professional footing. Moving guard Nate Herbig, who started a handful of games at center while with the Jets, is an option. So too is resigning Cole. But the absence of a trustworthy center is cause for concern.

Defensive Line: Slightly Better

I was tempted to say this group is equal to last year’s version. But nothing stays equal in life. Things get better or they get worse, and if those are the choices, the defensive line is slightly better. Here’s why:

The depth chart is largely unchanged. Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi and Keeanu Benton return as starters in the base 3-4. Montravious Adams was re-signed as the primary backup, while Armon Watts departed in free agency. To replace Watts, the Steelers signed Dean Lowry, an eight-year veteran formerly of the Vikings and Packers. Those five players, plus DeMarvin Leal and Breiden Fehoko, give the Steelers a solid if not spectacular rotation.

There are definite concerns with this group. Heyward is a year older and a year closer to retirement. Ogunjobi gets injured often and seemed to regress last season after a solid 2022 campaign. The same is true for Leal. But Benton excelled as a rookie and should be a force up front, while the steady Adams gives the Steelers some depth should one of their starters go down. Lowry has made 84 career starts and provides an upgrade over Watts, while Leal faces a make-or-break season in his third year. He should be hungry to save his career, if nothing else. There is no question the Steelers need to spend some draft capital on the defensive line group, preferably in the first few rounds. But the maturation of Benton, the re-signing of Adams and the addition of Lowry puts this group in slightly better shape than they were a few months ago.

Linebackers: Better

This is an easy one, considering the shape of the linebacking corps at the end of last season. Starters Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander were out with injuries, leaving Elandon Roberts as the only inside backer with more than a handful of games under his belt. Backups and former cast-offs like Mykal Walker, Myles Jack and Mark Robinson filled in admirably but were simply not good enough. With Alexander a free agent, and Holcomb likely to miss parts of 2024 as he recovers from a terrible knee injury, a significant investment was needed.

It was with great joy, then, that Steeler Nation received the news that Khan had lured Patrick Queen away from the rival Ravens. Queen, who is just 24 years old, combined for 250 tackles the past two seasons and should give the Steelers their most complete linebacker since Ryan Shazier. His sideline-to-sideline range and ability to cover will make him a great fit next to the run-thumping Roberts. Holcomb’s injury leaves the Steelers thin behind those two, and a mid-round draft pick at the position seems likely. But with Queen in the fold, this group has improved significantly.

Defensive Backs: Worse

The same cannot be said for the defensive backs. Joey Porter Jr. gives the Steelers a shutdown corner on one side of the field. On the other, they let both Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace walk and brought in Donte Jackson, whom Pittsburgh acquired from Carolina in the Diontae Johnson trade. The jury is out on Jackson, who was up-and-down in Carolina. The same is true at safety, where free agent DeShon Elliot was signed to replace the departing Keanu Neal. Damontae Kazee gives the Steelers an established third player in the safety rotation, but there is no such depth at corner. Second-year player Cory Trice, who missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury, and Eagles cast-off Josiah Scott are the current backups on the depth chart. Neither is a true nickel corner, which remains an area of concern. A reunion with Peterson is a possibility, as is adding a high draft pick at corner. To say the Steelers are thin at the position is an understatement.

Special teams: Better

Patterson is one of the most prolific kick returners in NFL history, and with the new rules that put the kick return back into play, his addition should upgrade that unit. Cutting ties with punter Pressley Harvin was another smart move. It’s hard not to see Cameron Johnston, who finished fifth in the league in net punting average last season, as a significant upgrade. The ultrareliable Chris Boswell returns to handle the kicking duties, and while re-signing his long snapper, Christian Kuntz, wasn’t the sexiest move this off-season, it was smart. The special teams should be better next season, perhaps by a significant amount.

Overall: Better

There are still major holes to fill, and the Steelers need to ace the upcoming draft the way they did last year. But the moves Pittsburgh has made over the past month have put the team in better shape than they were when last season ended. No one is popping champagne corks yet, or even guaranteeing the team will win a playoff game for the first time since 2016. But they are a stronger team right now on paper, and that’s a good place to start.

Next up, we’ll look at whether the coaching staff is better or worse given the changes that have transpired. Stay tuned!

Please follow me on Twitter @KTSmithFFSN and check out my “Call Sheet” podcast which airs every Thursday. Watch out for my video breakdowns on our SCN and FFSN YouTube channels as well.


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