PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger’s final season as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback wasn’t the Super Bowl victor the 18-year-old had hoped for, but the Steelers made the playoffs despite a rollercoaster season. While the Steelers have a big gap to fill in the middle, the future is bright for young stars like the return of Nagy Harris and this year’s NFL Defensive player TJ Watt, who tied Michael Strahan’s one-season record with 22.5.
In addition to the new quarterback, the Steelers will have changes to the defensive coordinator and general manager, along with a few auxiliary positions. Former minor coach Terrell Austin takes over as retired defensive coordinator Keith Butler, while the Steelers conduct a search for the next general manager to succeed Kevin Colbert after the 2022 NFL Draft.
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The Steelers often don’t have seasons to rebuild, but the 2022 campaign could be the first in a long time. The direction the Steelers take in the off-season will determine whether they can compete in the stacked division.
Expected maximum salary area: 33 million dollars
The most important free agents: CB Joe Hadden, WR Jojo Smith-Schuster, S Terrell Edmonds, WR James Washington, WR Ray Ray McCloud, CB Akello Witherspoon
Possible candidates for cutting: The Steelers need depth in the linebacker and offensive tackle, but ILB Joe Schobert and OT Zach Banner are overrated options. Fan favourite, Banner was poised to take on a tackle and leadership duties up front entering 2021, but hasn’t broken into the starting line-up after a lengthy rehab from a 2020 AFC Champions League rupture and has appeared in seven games. Banner has one year left on his two-year deal, and his chops will save $5 million against the cap with $1.6 million in dead money. Cutting it could give the Steelers money to reprocess free agent Chukuma Okurafor. Meanwhile, Schubert has a cap of $9.7 million in 2022. His cut saves $7.8 million against the cap this year, $9.8 million in 2023 and $10.7 million in 2024. And keep an eye on defensive end Stefon Tweet, who missed a season 2021 after the death of his brother and knee surgery. Parting ways with Tuitt after June 1 saves $9 million against the cap, but leaves $4.9 million in dead money.
The big question: Who will be the next quarterback from the Steelers? The Steelers’ path to finding the next caller for a signal is not clear. They have in-house options at Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins, but they can also choose to recruit a novice, sign a mid-level veteran or make a big name splash at a commercial or free agency. The Steelers have other glaring needs to deal with, such as offensive line and cornerback, but the quarterback’s decision will determine the remainder of the off-season and 2022 campaign.
Best off-season scenario: The Steelers find the quarterback behind the next franchisee and bolster the attacking line with turnkey talent. In an ideal world, the quarterback would be a regular starter on day one, but even landing a first-round quarterback to learn behind Rudolph or one of the other 2022 veterans would be successful. The big win, though increasingly unlikely, would be a re-sign of Smith Schuster. Defensively, the Steelers re-signed a combination of Edmunds, Haden and Witherspoon and secured Minka Fitzpatrick’s safe deal during training camp.
Worst case scenario off season: The Steelers holds the status quo across the board. To be able to compete in the AFC North — and the AFC as a whole — the Steelers need some kind of quick move to compete in a division that earned a Super Bowl runner-up in Cincinnati. Rolling in with Haskins and Rudolph and either the second-day quarterback or the mid-level free agent for a season could allow the Steelers to wait until a more talented class of 2023 to find their next quarterback. But that would be a kick as a quarterback who could walk the road and settle for years to rebuild, something neither the Steelers nor their fans have experienced in nearly two decades.
An early look at the NFL Draft, from ESPN analyst Jordan Reed: With question marks under center for the first time in nearly two decades, the heir apparent to Roethlisberger remains the focal point of an off-season team. This can come via free agency or via trade, but keep an eye on their selection as well. If they find their quarterback elsewhere, they can tackle an offensive tackle in the draft.
Most important needs: QB, OL, CB
Best choice for: number 20