NFL Free Agency has been active for over a week now. With the flurry of moves they’ve made, let’s take a look at how the Steelers’ free agency has gone so far.
If you want a long form/audio version of my thoughts on free agency, take a look at my podcast the Simon Shortt Podcast. I did an episode this week doing a deep dive on this same topic. Follow the links to the show for Apple and Spotify.
Now let’s take a look at week one of the Steelers’ free agency!
Within a half-hour off free agency getting underway Pittsburgh signed presumably their next starting QB. Mitchell Trubisky spent the 2021-2022 season as Josh Allen’s backup for the Buffalo Bills. The 27-year-old was the number two overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft to the Chicago Bears. In his fours years starting for the Bears he threw 64 TDs and 38 INTs, made one Pro Bowl and had three playoff appearances.
As a player Trubisky has good mobility and strong arm. His athletic traits should translate well to Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada’s system with lots of boot legs and play action passes.
I’m happy with the Trubisky signing. Mostly because the contract came in a lot lower than expected. Leading up to free agency there were reports he’d get upwards of $10 mil/season, and instead Pittsburgh signed him to a two-year deal for $14mil before incentives. His base salary on an average level is lower than that of Marcus Mariota and Tyrod Taylor.
General Manager Kevin Colbert was one of just two NFL GMs to attend Trubisky’s Pro Day in 2017. This was just one year before drafting Mason Rudolph. Could this perhaps mean Colbert had ideas of Trubisky being the heir to Ben Roethlisberger all those years ago? And if so, does he maybe feel that way now? We’ll know more after the draft, but so far Pittsburgh has been building around their new QB.
James Daniels is a young and emerging offensive lineman. Drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2018, he has NFL experience at both guard positions and center (where he played at Iowa). He comes to Pittsburgh as a 24-year-old with a lot of talent and experience.
His size (6’3″, 306lbs) and length (33 3/4″ arms) combined with his athleticism (7.29 3-cone) make him a great fit for the Steelers offensive line. He has a physical and nasty demeanor that the team was missing last year. His experience in Chicago’s zone blocking scheme showed off his athleticism where he was frequently at the second level. That experience plus his size and strength should help him convert well to Pittsburgh’s power blocking scheme.
Daniels now walks in to the Steelers’ o-line room as their top guy. And his positional versatility still gives them flexibility as they go into the draft. Signing a player as good as Daniels certainly helped the other moves Pittsburgh made to that position group.
Mason Cole/Chukwuma Okorafor
Before signing Daniels, the Steelers re-signed Right Tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and interior offensive linemen Mason Cole. Okorafor was brought back on a three-year deal that’s pretty easy for the Steelers to get out of after the first and second seasons. It’s a safe move, bringing back a young tackle who played well for them the last two seasons. Not so well that he’s one of the top guys on this team, but good enough to play another year or two.
Mason Cole was the most unknown player for me signed to this group. A little research left me with a mixed back of emotions. The first that stands out is his alma mater. Cole is a “Michigan Man”, a favorite of Colbert and Head Coach Mike Tomlin. This means they probably had some familiarity with him in the pre-draft process. Next is his versatility. In college he played left tackle and center, and in the NFL has played center and both guard spots. Center seems to be his best position.
At this time it appears Pittsburgh’s offensive line will be:
- LT: Dan Moore Jr
- LG: Kevin Dotson
- C: Mason Cole
- RG: James Daniels
- RT: Chukwuma Okorafor
Cole should be an upgrade over last year’s center Kendrick Green, who struggled as a rookie converting from playing guard in college. Cole has college and NFL experience at the position, and is playing with better size (6’4″ vs 6’1) than Green. However, the offseason still is not over, and Pittsburgh could still add a lineman in the draft.
Myles Jack has perhaps been the biggest name signed during Steelers free agency. A six-year veteran out of Jacksonville, Jack is still just 26-years-old. The inside linebacker is potentially the most talented linebacker Pittsburgh has had since Ryan Shazier. His football IQ, tackling, and pass defense are to the level that Steelers fans expected from Devin Bush when Pittsburgh moved up for him.
Jack walks in and should be Pittsburgh’s number one inside linebacker being the three-down player and green dot wearer. While he has not produced behind the line of scrimmage to this point in the NFL (just 6.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss) I’m not sure at this time if that was a schematic decision by the Jaguars, or it’s just something he’s not that good at. He does have better size than Bush (6’1″, 245lbs, 33″ arms vs 5’11”, 235lbs, 32″ arms) which might give him more of an advantage in that regard. So there is a chance the two could play next to each other.
Jack’s two-year contract also puts Pittsburgh in a good situation with Bush, who is in year four of his rookie deal, and unlikely to have his fifth-year option picked up. If Jack is as expected and Bush has another disappointing year, you can extend Jack next offseason and let Bush walk. If Bush impresses and you’d like to re-sign him for another year or more, you can let Jack play out his contract or cut him.
However, for Jack to be the best version of himself, finding a bigger linebacker to be the “thumper” to play next to him would be ideal. My vote for that is still a second round pick on Wyoming’s Chad Muma, Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal, or (my favorite) Cincinatti’s Darrian Beavers.
Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon
Steelers free agency also saw Pittsburgh bulk up their cornerback room. First they went outside the team and signed Levi Wallace. Wallace is an outside corner with good size and great run defense/tackling ability. I’ve referenced this tweet from Alex Kozora a lot when talking about Wallace:
This is a great stat because a) Pittsburgh loves their corners to play the run, b) a Steeler is on this list c) I actually talked about Charvarius Ward a lot earlier in the offseason, and d) it shows Wallace fits. In pass coverage, Wallace is better/has more experience in zone than man. It will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh continues the more zone defense it switched to last year due to the newness of the corners.
Pittsburgh also brought back fan-favorite Ahkello Witherspoon. Witherspoon brings that high-level coverage ability that neither Wallace nor Cameron Sutton bring. Ahkello was Pittsburgh’s leading interceptor last year with three picks in basically nine games.
The cornerback was traded for last offseason for a fifth round pick. Not really cracking the gameday roster until week 10 of last year, he could follow in the footsteps of Chris Wormley, who Pittsburgh traded for ahead of the 2020-21 season. Wormley did not play a lot that year due to injuries but was given a two-year contract and had a great year for Pittsburgh last year.
Gunner Olszewski is a kick and punt returner from the New England Patriots. The 25-year-old was an All-Pro in 2020 for his return abilities. Pittsburgh signed him to replace Ray-Ray McCloud who signed with the San Fransisco 49ers.
Bringing in a legitimate returner was important for the Steelers’ free agency. Ray-Ray created a lot of short fields for the struggling Pittsburgh offense over the last two years, and was the first consistent return man in two consecutive seasons for the Steelers since Rod Woodson in the early 90s.
Olszewski is technically listed as a wide receiver, but he won’t provide much there. With New England he had just nine catches in the last three seasons. His secondary value will also come on special teams, where he had seven tackles last season.
This Steelers free agency also brought a slew of depth re-signings. Miles Killebrew, Arthur Maulet, Montravius Adams, J.C. Haussenhaur, Robert Spillane, Dwayne Haskins, and Marcus Allen were all brought back on various contracts.
Killebrew, Spillane, and Allen are all core special teamers so they should definitely make the roster. Adams was signed mid-season from the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad and had some good moments. He should be a quality rotational player on the defensive line. Maulet has some value as a run defending nickel corner, but also played some special teams last year. He may have enough value to make the final roster but he’s not as locked in as the names before him. Haskins and Haussenhaur are back looking to compete for backup roles for this season.
Who Is Left
Players who are still free agents from last year’s team are:
- S Terrell Edmunds
- CB Joe Haden
- TE Eric Ebron
- G Trai Turner
- EDGE Taco Charlton
Of these names Edmunds and Charlton are the only ones I can see returning. I laid out my case for Edmunds here. Reportedly he is still in the mix to be re-signed (as Pittsburgh has not filled the strong safety position) but fans are heavy on the Tyrann Mathieu train. Charlton ended up being solid depth at outside linebacker last year. Something that is really important to keeping T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith fresh and healthy for a full season. His only downside is he doesn’t provide a lot on special teams, an important trait to have as a Steeler defensive backup.
Ebron, Haden, and Turner are all veteran players who have likely played their last snaps in Pittsburgh. I could see all of them taking their time in signing with a team until after the draft, to see where their best fit ends up being.
Be on the lookout for more offseason coverage here on Fantom Sports! You can also take a look at my Steelers Mock Drafts here.
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