Mike Fanelli | January 13th, 2020
There are only three things guaranteed in life. They are birth, death, and everyone in the city of Pittsburgh glad the Steelers got rid of that headache known as Antonio Brown. Since his trade to the Oakland Raiders in March, Brown has produced one major lapse in judgment after another. Steeler fans are much happier with promising rookie Diontae Johnson. The Steelers selected Johnson with the third-round pick they got from the Raiders for Brown.
While the Steelers easily won that offseason trade, the season didn’t go as planned. After getting destroyed 33-3 by the New England Patriots in week one, Ben Roethlisberger injured his elbow week two against the Seattle Seahawks and would end up missing the reason of the season. The duo of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges had some bright moments but in the end, the team missed the playoffs in large part because they didn’t have their franchise quarterback.
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What Went Right
The Steelers pulled off the biggest steal of the season trading for former Miami Dolphin’s defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. With the Dolphins wanting to add as many draft picks as possible and Fitzpatrick’s growing frustration with his role on the team, the Steelers traded away their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for Fitzpatrick despite starting the season 0-2.
Many questioned the move at the time, wondering if the Steelers just traded away a top-five pick and a chance to find Big Ben’s successor. Instead, Fitzpatrick turned the Steelers’ defense around. He was tied with Joe Haden for five interceptions, best on the team, and scored the Steelers’ only pick-six of the season. In the end, the pick the Dolphins got for Fitzpatrick was 18th overall. Without a doubt, the Steelers won that trade.
Along with Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt had an excellent season. Watt was tied for fourth in the league with 14.5 sacks, a career-high, while his eight forced fumbles were tied for best in the league with Chandler Jones. Watt’s excellent play earned him his second Pro Bowl selection and First-Team All-Pro selection, his first. While everyone already knew Watt was a star, his running mate, Bud Dupree had a career year as well.
Dupree entered the season with 30 career sacks, 11.5 over the past two seasons. This year he posted 11.5 sacks, tied for ninth-best in the league, after failing to top six sacks in any other year of his career. He is a free agent this spring and the Steelers will place the franchise tag on him if they can’t come to a long term deal.
On offense the rookie Johnson showed promise, scoring six total touchdowns (five receiving, one punt return). Meanwhile, second-year receiver James Washington turned into the deep threat the Steelers needed on offense, averaging 16.7 yards per catch. After seeing just 38 targets last season, Washington saw 80 targets this year, catching 44 of them. This duo will need to continue to develop, as JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t carry the offense by himself.
What Went Wrong
Speaking of JuJu, the third-year receiver regressed this season. He still had big games, going over 75 receiving yards in a game five times. In three of those games, he also reached the end zone. Unfortunately, those were the only three times he found the end zone after scoring seven touchdowns in each of his first two seasons. Some will argue that JuJu isn’t capable of being the Steelers’ top wide receiver and is better suited for the number two role. That isn’t the case though.
JuJu missed four games this season and was ineffective in several others because of injuries. His catch rate dropped from 67% last year to 60% this season. The biggest difference for him was the inconsistent play at quarterback. While Rudolph and Hodges had some good moments, the duo combined for 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, while both completed just 62% of their passes. Assuming Big Ben is back next year 100% healthy, expect JuJu to rebound to his Pro Bowl level of play.
The offense was killed with injuries and that’s what ultimately doomed their playoff hopes. Much like JuJu, James Conner struggled to stay healthy. He missed six games this season and didn’t finish a few because of shoulder injuries. Even when healthy, Conner struggled as he rushed for more than 55 yards just once this season. However, he did have two games with over 75 receiving yards this season. If Conner can’t stay healthy next season (a contract year), the Steelers will be looking for a new feature back in 2021.
Outlook for the Offseason
Despite some rumors early in the season that Mike Tomlin could be out as the head coach, he will return in 2020 after his team showed great effort during the season despite several critical injuries on offense. The Steelers are projected to be one of the tightest teams against the cap this spring. They are projected to have just $1.4 million dollars in cap space but have several ways to open up some space. Restructuring Big Ben’s contract would open up almost $10 million dollars in space but would also increase his already high cap number for the 2021 season.
The Team’s Free Agents
The Steelers don’t have a lot of key free agents they need to re-sign. Only four pending free agents played more than 60% of the snaps this season. Starting right tackle Matt Feiler and cornerback Mike Hilton are both restricted free agents and will likely be back unless the money gets out of hand. Hilton will likely get a second-round tender while Feiler might get a cheaper tender and be allowed to leave in free agency.
Meanwhile, the two stars on defense, Javon Hargrave and Dupree are candidates to be slapped with the franchise tag. With big money already invested in the defensive line with Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, Hargrave will likely be playing elsewhere in 2020. Coming off a career year, Dupree will get the tag unless the Steelers can work out a long term deal with him before free agency begins.
To open up cap space, the Steelers have several potential cap causalities. Cutting Mark Barron would open up about $5.3 million dollars in cap space. With rookie star Devin Bush and veteran Vince Williams locked in as the starting inside linebackers, Barron is an expensive backup the Steelers can’t afford. Tight end Vance McDonald will likely need to take a pay cut or be at risk for being cut. He had just 273 receiving yards this season and with a $7.1 million dollar cap hit, the Steelers can save $5.7 million dollars by cutting him.
Two other players that could be cut are Anthony Chickillo (saving $5 million dollars) and Tyson Alualu (saving $2.8 million dollars). Both are backups at their positions and could be cut to open up the cap space needed to tag Dupree. However, cutting Chickillo would leave the Steelers very thin at outside linebacker behind Watt and Dupree, while cutting Alualu would cut into the Steelers’ defensive line depth, especially if Hargrave isn’t re-signed.
Open Market Free Agents
If the Steelers cut everyone mentioned above and restructure Big Ben’s contract, they will have about $28.8 million dollars in cap space. Now some of that will need to be saved for the rookie draft class and a good chunk of it will be needed to tag Dupree. However, the Steelers have had success finding value in free agency and should do similar this year despite not being super active. If the Steelers don’t re-sign Feiler, they will need to find a replacement in free agency or the draft. Some cheap options could be Germain Ifedi from the Seahawks, Demar Dotson from the Buccaneers, and Donald Penn from the Redskins. All three will likely hit the market and have been starters for several years now.
Of the trio, Penn might be the best value. He was unsigned much of the offseason last year till the Redskins signed him in August because of the Trent Williams‘ holdout. If Williams returns, the Redskins probably will not re-sing Penn and while he has been a left tackle most of his career, he has experience on the right side as well. Adding Penn would allow the Steelers to draft a rookie in the middle rounds while giving him a year or two to develop before trusting him to protect the franchise quarterback.
If McDonald agrees to a pay cut, the Steelers will roll with him for another season as their starting tight end. However, if they cut him and don’t re-sign Nick Vannett, the Steelers will need to find a new starting tight end. Adding Austin Hooper would be a dream scenario but not only is he out of their price range, but he will be franchise tagged by the Falcons. Some cheaper options could include Vernon Davis and Darren Fells. The Redskins aren’t expected to offer Davis a new deal and the Texans could let Fells walk if third-round pick Kahale Warring is ready to take over as the starter.
Assuming they have to cut Barron and Chickillo to create cap space, the Steelers will need to add depth at both inside and outside linebacker. They can do this with their middle-round picks but some cheap free agent options could include Sean Lee, Josh Bynes, Will Compton, Carl Nassib, and Jeremiah Attaochu. All of these guys aren’t likely to return to their current team this offseason and could sign cheap one or two year contracts as depth behind Bush, Williams, Watt, and Dupree.
Projecting the NFL Draft
With their trade for Fitzpatrick, the Steelers won’t pick till the second round, pick 49 overall. In addition, the Steelers traded away their third-round pick to the Broncos when they traded up in the first round last year to select Bush. The good news is, they are projected to receive a third-round compensatory pick for losing Le’Veon Bell in free agency last year, pick 102 overall.
Round 2, Pick 49: Offensive Tackle
The Steelers did spend a third-round pick on Chukwuma Okorafor in 2018 but he played in just one game last year and the jury is still out on him. Regardless, Big Ben is far from the most mobile quarterback in the league (especially at his age), and the Steelers might need a new starting right tackle and depth at both tackle spots. This draft is expected to be deep at offensive tackle, so the Steelers should be able to find a starter in the middle of the second round.
Round 3, Pick 102: Defensive Line
Last season the Steelers rostered six defensive linemen for most of the season. However, if Hargrave leaves in free agency and Alualu is a cap causality, the Steelers’ depth up front will be gone. They have high hopes for 2019 sixth-round pick Isaiah Buggs but the depth needs to be rebuilt, especially given Tuitt’s injury history. The Steelers have had success in the middle rounds finding impact players on the defensive line and should again this year.
Despite losing Brown and Bell, the Steelers had expectations of playing in February this season. However, when Big Ben was lost for the season, making the playoffs was a long shot. If Big Ben is healthy in 2020, JuJu returns to his Pro Bowl level of play, and the defense plays similarly to this season, the Steelers can make a Super Bowl run. Should they be favorites to win the title in 2021? No. Should they be favorites to win the AFC North next year? No. However, for anyone who projects the playoff bracket in August, make sure the Steelers are on it as they will be back in the playoffs next season.
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