Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
All season, the majority of football fans and pundits were calling the Steelers and the New England Patriots for the AFC Championship Game. That didn’t exactly work out, as the Jacksonville Jaguars shocked the former a round before it could happen.
The Steelers were obviously not pleased with the outcome. They parted ways with offensive coordinator Todd Haley as a partial response; his playcalling was heavily criticized following the game. Quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner was promoted in his place.
That move won’t catapult the team past the Patriots next season, however. In fact, there’s nothing technically wrong with the Steelers. Of their four losses in 2017, two of them were to the Jaguars, suggesting that the issue is more with beating them than the roster as a whole.
It helps that Ben Roethlisberger has indicated he’ll be back in 2018. He had mulled retirement around this time last year and frustratingly referred to ending his career after the first Jaguars loss. Roethlisberger remains one of the top QBs in football, so having him in the fold for another season will delay a full-scale transition.
In the end, there’s not much for the Steelers to address this offseason, apart from one crucial decision on one of their best players. They’ll be able to use the draft to restock while head coach Mike Tomlin gets the rest of the team ready for next year. The main focus will be performing well on the field to get by the Patriot menace in 2018.
Current number of draft picks: 6 (#28 in the first round)
Cap space: $1-6 million
Notable free agents
Le’Veon Bell, RB: The Steelers only have nine unrestricted free agents, but one of them could end up being the best player on the open market this offseason. Bell received the franchise tag ahead of his pending free agency last year and finished not far away from over 2,000 yards from scrimmage to go with 11 total touchdowns.
Bell is perhaps the best running back in football, yet the Steelers have been cautious about giving him a big money contract. He’s made it clear that he won’t be satisfied with getting tagged again, which could complicate things over the next few weeks. They’ll have to make a decision soon, lest they lose one of their most dangerous threats.
RB: Retaining Bell will be the Steelers primary focus of course, but two of their other running backs, Stevan Ridley and Fitzgerald Toussaint, are also free agents. Even if they can hold onto Bell, they’ll need some spell options in the backfield.
ILB: Ryan Shazier‘s scary back injury remains depressing to think about, and it also leaves a sizable hole in the Steelers linebacking corps. Sean Spence, who the team brought in as a stopgap after Shazier got hurt, is a free agent as well.
G/T: The Steelers offensive line has become one of the better blocking units in the league, but they’re likely to lose their top backup this offseason. Chris Hubbard filled in pretty well at right tackle when Marcus Gilbert was hurt/suspended, and he could parlay that into a starting gig elsewhere.
S: Despite playing in every game since being drafted in the second round two years ago, Sean Davis has been mixed at best as a safety. Some competition could do him and the defense good.
QB: Enough is enough. The Steelers have to find a better backup for Roethlisberger than Landry Jones. They brought in Joshua Dobbs as a developmental prospect last year, but he might not be ready yet.
Best player/building block
Antonio Brown, WR: No surprise. Brown led the league in receiving yardage this season with 1,533, was fifth in catches with 101 and tied for fourth in touchdowns with 8. He was the only wideout to finish in the top five for all three categories. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 93.9, the best among all receivers. The question isn’t when Brown will slow down, it’s if he’ll slow down at all.
David DeCastro, G: Sometimes it’s thrilling to see a player continually get better every season, and DeCastro is evident of that, going from above-average guard to elite guard this year. He allowed no sacks in 2017, giving up just 15 total pressures (one QB hit, 14 hurries). PFF graded him as the second-best guard in the league behind Zack Martin at 91.7. Let’s see if he can improve even more in 2018.