In what now appears to be an annual tradition, I write my “Where Do The Steelers Go From Here” article at what feels like the low point of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season. Unfortunately it’s coming a little earlier this year than last. But that makes sense. Last season Pittsburgh still had it’s Hall of Fame quarterback, and a player in the middle of a Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) season. In 2022-23 they have neither. At 2-6 and coming out of the bye week, it’s time to determine: Where Do The Steelers Go From Here?
The 2022-23 season is not off to a great start. The Pittsburgh Steelers are just 2-6, and Twitter has already started wondering if they can draft Will Anderson Jr. in April. To say the team has met unexpected circumstances would be an understatement. To start the year, Running Back Najee Harris has dealt with a foot injury that hasn’t made running behind the average (at best) offensive line any better. Additionally, reigning DPOY T.J. Watt has missed the last seven games with an injured pectoral muscle. And lastly, rookie QB Kenny Pickett made his debut in the second half of a Week 4 matchup against the New York Jets. Awkward timing to say the least.
All that (and more) has wrapped up into a bottom three offense and a defense not strong enough to cover it up. So if we were to take this extra time during the bye week to look ahead, let’s answer the question: Where Do The Steelers Go From Here?
This year, the quarterback position is much shorter. There is a 98% chance that Pickett will be the team’s starter next season. With that expect for veterans Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph to be out the door. Meaning the Steelers will either need to draft a late-round QB to be the team’s backup, or they’ll look for a new veteran in free agency who is expecting to be a backup. Some options for that would be former division rivals Andy Dalton or Joe Flacco, or longtime backups Chase Daniels or Case Keenum. Just to name a few.
The 2% chance I’m giving that the quarterback is not Kenny Pickett depends on Pittsburgh’s draft position. Let’s say this team really does end up with a top five pick. Let’s say at least one of the two top quarterbacks is available. Does the team have a conversation? I think you at least have to think about it.
I’m not making a declaration on Pickett one way or another. I’ve long said you don’t really know about a quarterback until the end of their second full season starting. But if the opportunity for a C.J. Stroud or Bryce Young is there – you have to at least think about it.
Also pretty easy. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren will both be back on this team as the top two backs. Benny Snell is an unrestricted free agent that could be re-signed for cheap as a core special teamer. I would be fine with this move since the team isn’t making a real investment at running back with Harris and Warren on the roster.
At full back, I doubt this team retains Derek Watt. I’ve been a big fan of Watt for his special teams value, but him and Connor Heyward are pretty redundant as special teamers and “tweener” tight end/full back/h back. If they brought Watt back for the minimum and strictly called Heyward at tight end I guess it’s ok. Just feels a little unnecessary at this point.
The Steelers will need to make some sort of investment in the wide receiver position after trading away Chase Claypool. At minimum that would mean re-signing Steven Sims and/or Miles Boykin. Sims should be a no-brainer as a restricted free agent. And we’ll see if Boykin can provide you something in the second half of the season on offense. Boykin, again, has been a fantastic special teamer as a gunner on punts. So he may provide enough value to be re-signed on that alone.
In terms of bringing in a starting caliber receiver, I think the draft is the more likely option. The free agent market is not strong at the position this offseason – which is why Pittsburgh was able to get what they did for Claypool. However the Steelers are famous for making good draft picks at the position.
The caveat for the draft is this. I don’t think a Day 1 or 2 pick should be spent on the position. I think the earliest you’re looking at is the fourth round, and if not then you’re waiting until round 6 or 7. I’m OK with this idea. Pittsburgh has Diontae Johnson and George Pickens locked up. Then let’s say you keep Sims as a slot receiver/number three. Then you either re-sign Boykin or another mid-to-low-level free agent as depth, and have a late-round rookie and Calvin Austin III as wild card options with upside. That’s not a bad group, albeit a little top-heavy.
This should be chalk as well. Pat Freiermuth – when healthy – is one of the best pass catching tight ends in the league. I’m expecting a big second half of the season for him with Claypool out. The previously mentioned Heyward is an interesting number three with some offensive versatility and special teams ability. Then I think they re-sign Zach Gentry for cheap after becoming a very respectable number two blocking TE.
Hang on to your hats. This is where it gets interesting. The Steelers offensive line looked like one of the worst in football entering this NFL season. It looked even worse if you watched the preseason games. That said, the group has gotten incrementally better each week and has become a decent pass-blocking group. However, they cannot create running room consistently and get very little push.
No amount moves would be too many for this unit. Pittsburgh could spend big in free agency and spend two early picks on the position and I would be happy. Take your pick of who to upgrade. On the surface, there isn’t one player on the line to blame. No one you feel HAS to be upgraded. But I’d say if two or three of these players aren’t changed out for next year the team isn’t doing enough. Something has to give.
In free agency I’ve highlighted five names. At tackle you have Orlando Brown Jr, Mike McGlinchey and George Fant. At guard you have David Edwards and Elton Jenkins. When healthy Edwards and Jenkins are versatile players who are effective run blockers. I like Jenkins much better at guard than I do at tackle, and Edwards was a big part of what made the Los Angeles Rams offensive line so good when they were healthy.
George Fant has put together some really nice seasons with the New York Jets, but will be coming off of his own injury this year. He would probably be the smallest upgrade over the tackles, but also likely the cheapest. Mike McGlinchey has been very dependable in San Francisco, but might force a move for Chukwuma Okorafor to left tackle. While you’d rather your incumbent pieces be able to hit the ground running, a shakeup in alignment could be good.
I think Orlando Brown Jr. should be this team’s top target in free agency. Has he been as good in Kansas City as he was in Baltimore? No. Were the Chiefs the best for him? Also no. Brown went from being a run-blocking right tackle to a pass-blocking left tackle for one of the most high octane offenses in the league. That does not match his strengths as a player. If Brown came to Pittsburgh and played either tackle, but was doing more run blocking. I think that could really help this team.
If the Steelers don’t utilize one of their first two picks on an offensive lineman I don’t know what I’ll do. There’s a strong mix of tackles, guards and centers all near the top of the draft. At this time I don’t have any preferences as to the players themselves – and it might not even matter come April. As long as early round investments are being made.
Not only are the Steelers starting linemen struggling, but there’s not a lot of depth behind them. Trenton Scott, Jesse Davis and J.C. Hassenauer don’t give you a lot of confidence – let alone Kendrick Green who is on the roster but inactive on game days. Pittsburgh can’t draft too many offensive linemen. If they took two early and one more in one of the late rounds that can only help their situation.
The Steelers defensive line could see a lot of changes this offseason. Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley and Tyson Alualu are all free agents at the end of the year. Ogunjobi will be looking to cash in after missing out on a big contract last offseason. Alualu is likely playing in his last NFL season. Wormley could be looking at his options, but as a 30-year old rotational player, trying to stick in Pittsburgh might be his best option.
Whether this team goes to the draft or free agency – one big investment should be made. After the retiring of Stephon Tuitt this team needs an infusion of talent. Nose Tackle Montravius and Defensive Ends Isaiahh Loudermilk and DeMarvin Leal have each shown flashes, but you don’t want to walk in with those guys are your starters with Cam Heyward.
Pittsburgh has options here. There’s intriguing talent early in the draft and in the middle rounds. There are also free agents they could spend big money on. Whether that be Ogunjobi or someone like Da’Ron Payne or Zach Allen. Javon Hargrave is also certainly seeing heart eyes from Steelers fans. Then there’s even the long shot veteran players like Fletcher Cox and…yes…J.J. Watt. These options are fun and interesting, but might not be that likely.
Greg Gaines from the Rams is someone I’d be interested in. Can play him at nose tackle, probably not pay him a ton, and get a player in his prime years that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. Then you can draft another end and let the young guys battle it out for a job.
Behind offensive line this is where I would put the next big financial investment. Playing linebacker as a rookie is tough. Just ask Quay Walker, Devin Lloyd, Zaven Collins or Isaiah Simmons. Things have worked out well to this point with Myles Jack – a similar move is now warranted to play next to him.
There’s a long list of linebackers going into free agency this offseason. That list includes:
- Tremaine Edmunds
- Bobby Okereke
- David Long Jr.
- T.J. Edwards
- Rashaan Evans
- Leighton Vander Esche
- Lavonte David
- Cole Holcomb
I could see any one of those players being a great fit. It also means Devin Bush is likely on his way out. And that’s ok. Despite the slightly better games this season there should be a new starter next to Jack next season.
Please. Please. Draft an edge rusher. Pittsburgh has struggled to find a consistent number three outside linebacker for a couple seasons now. The team is feeling the effects of that this season with T.J. Watt’s injury.
It’s very difficult to go out and sign a good pass rusher to be a backup, because they want to start and play. Instead Pittsburgh should look to the draft somewhere on Day 2. That way they can bring this player along slowly and take advantage of all four rookie contract seasons.
Now…similar to the quarterback discussion…if someone like Will Anderson Jr. falls into your lap in April. You have to take that.
This team is obviously set with starters for next season. Whether or not Alex Highsmith gets a contract extension this summer will be interesting to monitor. But they absolutely need to make a draft investment in the position.
Pittsburgh could clean house in their defensive backs’ room if they wanted. Cameron Sutton and Terrell Edmunds, are unrestricted free agents. James Pierre is restricted. Levi Wallace, Ahkello Witherspoon and William Jackson III all have easy contracts to get out of. This could be a very different group in 2023-24.
But I don’t expect that to happen. I’d like to see Sutton and Edmunds Brough back on long-term deals. Last year I got lambasted for my support of Edmunds, but I’ll stand by it.
You then hope at least two of, but preferably three, Pierre, Wallace, Witherspoon, Jackson are worth bringing back. Only time will tell.
A role/position fans have wanted for years is a true shutdown number one cornerback. And that would certainly be nice. Maybe this team can go for that in one of the first two days of the draft, but there aren’t many option in free agency.
Offensive line, front seven, corner are the three position I really expect to be in play in the first round. With cornerback being perhaps the least likely.
Where Do The Steelers Go From Here?
Like last season, allow me to leave you with some optimism. Yes, the Steelers are 2-6. BUT – they put a rookie in at quarterback in Week 4. They’ve also had one of the toughest schedules in the league to this point which is much easier after the bye. Will this team be able to sneak into the playoffs like last year? Probably not. But can they have a much more respectable end to the season than the start of it? I think so.
Looking at this team, there are a few pieces to build with. You have a quarterback that you probably want to see another year of. You absolutely have the skill players around him for him to utilize. And you have blue chippers at every level of the defense.
So where do the Steelers go from here? First thing’s first – you have to remake the offensive line. At least two new faces with a mix of external free agents and high draft picks. Fix this running game and help Pickett by taking the pressure off of him.
Next round out the front seven on defense. Bring in capable starters at linebacker through free agency, and the defensive line with a mix of free agents and the draft.
And lastly, just keep the defensive backs solid. If that is by top-heavy measures and drafting an early round cornerback one – fine. If it’s keep the core of what is there this season – that’s fine too. Just make sure to keep the right pieces.
As a reminder – this is a fun bye week exercise. Things will likely change as the season goes on. But where we stand right now, these are the issues as they play out on Sundays. Only time will answer the question: Where Do The Steelers Go From Here?