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Steelers Burning Questions: Which Free Agents are worth bringing back in 2018?

With the off-season unfortunately upon us, it’s time to start looking at what the Steelers might do over the next several months to improve their chances to win their seventh Lombardi trophy. That process starts with determining which free agents are worth keeping around.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In this series, I will endeavor to “play the GM”. This includes signing free agents, releasing players to clear cap space, and at least a basic look at potential picks or the 2018 NFL Draft. In this first installment, we will look at the list of the Steelers’ players who are about to become free agents when the new league year starts in early March, and make a list of who the team should want to retain.

When the off-season starts, one of my favorite activities in which to engage is deciding who the Steelers should focus on keeping, and who should go. I hate it, however, when the off-season begins in December or January. Or, if we were talking about the Cleveland Browns, that event would coincide with roughly the onset of autumn.

Of course, the team has never taken heed of even a word of my advice, and I don’t expect them to start now. Nevertheless, it’s time for my annual review. This off-season, I’ve decided to take you along for the ride.

The Steelers have one enormous decision to make in the near future — how to handle the impending second try at negotiating a new contract with running back Le’Veon Bell — as well as several smaller-but-significant decisions.

One of those decisions has already been made, as the team elected to make cornerback Mike Hilton a priority, and signed him to a one-year contract on Tuesday. It’s hard to overstate how much of a contribution Hilton made in 2017, from his coverage skills to his freakish quickness as a pass rusher off the edge. He went from unlikely to be retained after the pre-season to one of the defense’s most important pieces, seemingly in the blink of an eye. His contract ate up a relatively small $555,000 of the Steelers’ admittedly meager cap space.

However, right now is not the time to worry about cap space. First, we need some idea of how much needs to be freed up. We won’t know that until we review the rest of the free agents to decide who to try to re-sign.

Priority Free Agents

Le’Veon Bell (Unrestricted)

Bell is priority numero uno, for obvious reasons. He answered two very important questions in 2017: 1) can he stay healthy all season, and 2) was 2016’s workload and output a fluke? The answers were resounding: YES! and NO! After more than 400 touches and nearly 2,000 yards, Bell has proven not just his worth as a running back, but also as a receiver. He should be paid among the best in the league. The problem is that it will take some significant sacrifices to get there, which we will dive into in the near future.

Chris Hubbard (Unrestricted)

There is a critical question the Steelers need to ask themselves in the coming days and weeks: is right tackle Marcus Gilbert really worth the $7.36 million the team has to account for this year? Of that amount, they can save a little over $4 million by cutting him, eating about $3.4 million in dead money, but getting Hubbard for a lot less over the next two years. For a first-time starting contract, Hubbard could be had relatively cheap, and certainly much less than the $9.8 million salary Gilbert is due in the final two years of his contract, especially if he signs for four or five years to spread out the damage.

Chris Boswell (Restricted)

Boswell will be a hot commodity and, coupled with his youth, it’s hard to imagine him signing for less than $2 million. Of the impending free agent kickers who played most of the 2017 season, Boswell’s accuracy was only surpassed by Carolina’s Graham Gano, and he made $3.1 million this season. Still, Boswell has proven in two and a half years that he is as good as just about any kicker out there, and is worth the money.

B.J. Finney (Exclusive-Rights)

Using much the same logic as with Hubbard, the key here is whether the team thinks the dropoff from left guard Ramon Foster to Finney is great enough to justify Foster’s $2.68 million salary. He carries less than $1 million in dead money, and Finney’s status as an exclusive-rights free agent means he either signs whatever the Steelers offer, or he sits out the season. In spot starts, he has played exceedingly well. A modest, $500,000 contract would be a savings over Foster of more than two million.

Roosevelt Nix (Restricted)

Keeping Nix will likely come down to one thing: whether it’s Todd Haley or someone else, will the Steelers’ 2018 offensive coordinator embrace the role of a strong fullback with good hands? Nix reminds more and more of Dan Kreider, who led the way for Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. Fullbacks/H-backs are making a modest comeback in today’s NFL, and Nix is already among the best.

Jordan Berry (Restricted)

Berry isn’t going to wow you with a powerful leg, but he has been among the league’s best at situational kicking. His downed-kick rate is outstanding, and precious few of his punts are ever returned. He’s very adept at pinning opponents inside their own 20. While this isn’t as critical as Boswell’s situation, Berry’s negotiations still shouldn’t be dismissed. He will have competitive offers if he hits the market.

Nice-to-Have Free Agents

Arthur Moats (Unrestricted)

Moats has been a consummate teammate and professional in four years with the Steelers, despite his status constantly changing due to the team focusing a lot of draft picks at outside linebacker. He loves Pittsburgh — his wife told me Monday that Pittsburgh is their permanent home, no matter where football takes them during the season. Still, don’t expect a hometown discount if he has a chance to start somewhere else in the league. If not, though, there is no reason to not offer him a modest, one- or two-year deal later in the free-agency period.

Sean Spence (Unrestricted)

Spence is not Ryan Shazier. No one except Shazier himself will ever fully fill that role. Any effort to keep Spence will likely be met with little competition, though, and he played admirably once he re-acclimated to the defensive Scheme in Pittsburgh. Whether he is even considered will all depend on if Shazier is showing any signs of being able to return to football after his devastating, season-ending injury in early December.

Anthony Chickillo (Restricted)

Chickillo is a very strong depth guy who would be great to have around. As a restricted free agent and originally a late-round pick, the Steelers won’t have to tender him all that much to keep him in the fold. He’s proven to be more valuable than his original draft pick, so he would probably receiver better than an original-round tender.That means the Steelers would receive draft-pick compensation for him if he signed with another team.

Eli Rogers (Restricted)

Rogers has been an asset, but is also eminently replaceable with even a mid-to-late round draft pick or low-cost free-agent signing. Expect Rogers to get a very modest tender, and not a whole lot of interest in him from other teams. He’s one of those guys who can contribute, but may very well end up staying with the team by default if they tender him at all.

Make-a-Modest-Offer Free Agents

Justin Hunter (Unrestricted)

Nothing more than the veteran minimum here.

Stevan Ridley (Unrestricted)

Ridley showed flashes in very, very limited time with the team. He could miss out on an offer entirely, though, because...

Fitzgerald Toussaint (Unrestricted)

...Toussaint may not be quite as good of a runner, but he is one of the team’s primary kick returners along with JuJu Smith-Schuster. That special-teams role may keep Toussaint, who showed a good deal more speed in 2017, employed in Pittsburgh on a vet-min contract for another year.

Matt Feiler (Exclusive-Rights)

As another ERFA, the team could keep Feiler around on a bare-minimum contract to at least see how he looks through training camp.

Mike Matthews (Exclusive-Rights)

The same goes for Matthews as with Feiler: there’s no reason to not tender him the league minimum. That way, you keep some depth, even if they are just camp fodder.

Everyone Else

Daimion Stafford (Unrestricted)

Nothing to see here.

Daniel McCullers (Unrestricted)

McCullers is the walking embodiment of unrealized potential. He’s an absolute monster in stature but, unfortunately,plays like a timid kitten most of the time. All he has ever been missing is playing nasty, but he just doesn’t seem to have it in him. Which is a shame, because he is nearly impossible to move off the line. He just kind of stalls there, and ends up being nothing more than an obstacle. For as much as I’ve been rooting for this guy to succeed, there is simply no reason to offer him another contract at this point, unless he comes back to camp on a vet-min contract with the knowledge that this is his absolute last chance. If he hasn’t shown anything by the end of August, he has to be gone.

In the next installment, we will start looking at how the Steelers can begin to clear out the considerable cap space needed to make a strong run at the priority free agents, while keeping enough left in the bank to sign draft picks.