I’ve been writing for the past several weeks on some things the Steelers should consider when assessing their needs on offense this offseason. This article pulls all of those ideas together into a four-step plan I believe provides the best chance to build an offense that will allow them to compete for a championship in 2020.
To begin, let’s gets the obvious out of the way: the return of our franchise quarterback will help immensely. The offense suffered in all facets because of Ben Roethlisberger’s absence in 2019. The passing game was abysmal because the quarterbacks’ tasked with filling his shoes, Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges, were neither ready nor capable of being quality NFL starters. This in turn effected the rushing attack, which was poor because defenses did not respect the pass and therefore loaded the box to defend the run. A rash of injuries across the board, from linemen to backs to receivers, contributed to the offensive woes as well. A healthy Roethlisberger, and (hopefully) better health overall, will improve the situation.
That said, Roethlisberger’s return alone won’t fix things. The Steelers have deficiencies on offense with or without QB7. They will no doubt be better at quarterback with Big Ben, even if, at 38 years old and coming off of major elbow surgery, he is unlikely to resemble the player to whom we’ve grown accustomed. No matter how Roethlisberger fares, they must address their other areas of need to compete for a championship,
Also, it needs to be understood that the Steelers, lacking both a first-round draft pick and significant salary cap space, are not in position to acquire a star or even high-impact player whose mere presence will transform the offense. They are not signing Derrick Henry or Amari Cooper. They are not drafting Jerry Jeudy or CeeDee Lamb. And no, I do not expect (nor do I desire) a reunion with Antonio Brown.
Neither are they likely to completely overhaul the offense. They won’t morph into the 49ers and put a fullback on the field and try to run the ball down people’s throats. They’re unlikely to copy Kansas City and get overly-creative with their pre-snap movement and formations. They’ve built this offense around what Roethlisberger likes and what he executes best: namely, 11 personnel formations, a one-back run game and limited pre-snap movement so he can study and diagnose defenses. That’s the offense we should expect in 2020. However, if the Steelers are smart in addressing their needs and in assessing players who can fill them, and with tweaking the scheme to make it more difficult to defend, they can put a better version of that offense on the field than what we’ve seen recently.
On to the plan then. Let’s take a look at four ideas on how the Steelers should proceed this off-season:
1. Acquire an athletic tight end
I’ll admit it up front: the current tight end situation in Pittsburgh gives me anxiety. The team’s starter at the position, Vance McDonald, looks like the prototype for what the Football Gods had in mind when they conceived the idea of a tight end. He is big, fast, physical and looks like he was created in the same Soviet lab that spawned Ivan Drago. The man should be a human wrecking ball on offense.
And yet... he isn’t. That’s not to say McDonald is bad. When he’s healthy he’s quite good, actually. But he’s not always healthy, he doesn’t block as well as it seems he should and sometimes, even with Roethlisberger in the lineup, he just disappears in games. The latter point is on the coaching staff as much as it’s on McDonald. He just feels under-utilized here. Maybe, with Antonio Brown soaking up so many of the targets in 2018 and the quarterback situation in 2019, McDonald has been a victim of circumstance. Or maybe he is what he is - a good tight end limited by injury and inconsistency as opposed to a potentially dominant tight end who hasn’t broken out yet.
Honestly, I think it’s the former. Because of that, the Steelers need a quality second tight end on the roster. What they have is Nick Vannett, a decent complimentary piece who may sign elsewhere, and Zach Gentry, a project. For me, tight end is the weakest position group on the offense.
The Steelers will likely scrape together enough free agent money to add depth at a couple of positions. If I’m Kevin Colbert, I’m looking immediately to the second-tier of free agent tight ends to spend it. The first tier — Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper and Eric Ebron — will likely command more than we can afford. But that next group, in particular Dallas’ Blake Jarwin, is interesting.
Jarwin would be a great compliment to McDonald. He’s not as big at 245 pounds but he is quicker, can line up wide or put his hand in the turf, has better hands and can really get up the seam of a defense. Jarwin had a breakout, three touchdown game against the Giants last fall that showcased this versatility. He would give the Steelers the vertical tight end threat they were hoping to acquire back in 2016 when they signed LaDarius Green from the Chargers. If he’s not breaking the bank somewhere else, Jarwin would be a great addition in Pittsburgh.
If the Steelers choose to put their free agent money elsewhere, Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet is the best of a thin tight end draft class. Kmet is not the athlete a guy like Ebron is but he’s more well-rounded and would become the most complete tight end on Pittsburgh’s roster. I can’t see the best tight end in the draft lasting until pick 49, however, and the Steelers are not in a position to go up to get him. So, if not Kmet in round two, they need to target a tight end in round three, where LSU’s Thaddeus Moss would bring pedigree (he’s Randy’s son), athleticism and experience in an offense like Pittsburgh’s. Dayton’s Adam Trautman, a poor man’s Hunter Henry-type, would be an interesting pick as well.
For all the merits of drafting “best player available,” the Steelers have needs to fill. Acquiring an athletic tight end should top their list.
2. Start rebuilding the offensive line
Speaking of needs, the offensive line has not been addressed much in recent years. The Steelers have drafted just four offensive linemen since 2012 and only one (Chuks Okorafor) in the third round or higher. It’s time to change that. With left guard Ramon Foster a probable salary cap casualty, center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro now in their 30s, and their top reserve (BJ Finney) a strong candidate to depart in free agency, restocking the OL cupboard is essential.
Provided Bud Dupree is re-signed, the Steelers need to draft a guard or tackle with one of their first two picks. Conceivably, they could wait until a later round to pull the trigger. But those late round developmental-types (Wesley Johnson, Jerald Hawkins, Derwin Gray) haven’t panned out in recent years. The jury is still out on Okorafor but he too was a project coming out of mid-major Western Michigan. The Steelers should target the most developed linemen they have a shot at in round two or three and take one without hesitation.
Let’s clarify the term “developed.” By this I mean guys from established programs with skills that fit what the Steelers do. This means players who can block zone and gap schemes and protect the passer. The Steelers should look for athletic linemen who can move their feet, and most importantly, are as close to NFL-ready as can be expected. They should not draft on “upside” or “potential.” Numbers like wing-span and arm length can make a prospect attractive but can be fool’s gold if a kid doesn’t develop. For 2020, the Steelers need to know what they’re getting.
So which linemen stand out? Wisconsin center/guard Tyler Biadasz would be a great selection due to his combination of size (6’3-320), quickness, technique, footwork and leadership (the best lineman on one of the best run-blocking units in the country). Biadasz is slotted by most draft-niks as an early second round candidate and is questionable to be there when the Steelers make their initial pick. A great second option would be LSU guard Damien Lewis, who possesses many of the same traits as Biadasz (big, strong, aggressive and a stalwart on a great college line) but is not quite as mobile. Both players fit the Steelers’ scheme and played big games against some of the best competition in college football. Both project as NFL starters and could compete with Finney (if resigned) or whomever the Steelers move inside if Finney leaves. Neither Biadasz nor Lewis is a sexy pick but both would immediately help solidify the interior of the line. Each are worth a second-round pick if available.
If the Steelers can land one of Kmet, Biadasz or Lewis in round two, it will be a win. If all three are gone by the time they select, it will be disappointing but not shocking. Either way, addressing their needs at tight end and along the line should be the top two priorities of the off-season on offense.
3. Add a receiver who can run
The Steelers have three really interesting receivers in JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson. All three are 23 years old, still learning the NFL game (and thus still improving) and possess varying strengths.
Juju is the most accomplished. He is big and strong and can run any route. Washington is the vertical threat, adept at using his thick frame to gain body position on deep balls. Johnson is the quickest, a slasher with great agility in tight spaces. The ceiling is high for this young group, especially with Roethlisberger slated to return.
What the trio lacks is straight speed. This is not a fast offense and adding speed, particularly on the outside, would be beneficial. The Steelers tried to do so last season when they added Donte Moncrief, whose best quality was his ability to get deep. Moncrief didn’t work out but the idea was well-intentioned. A player who can get vertical will open up the middle of the field for Juju, Johnson and the tight ends and will get better one-on-one match-ups for Washington.
For brevity’s sake, I’ll give you one name I find interesting in this regard: Breshard Perriman. I mentioned Perriman in this piece a few weeks ago (to a lukewarm response) but I’m doubling down on him. He’s a 4.24 freak of nature who is just 27 and has been under-the-radar productive the past two seasons in Cleveland and Tampa Bay. He should be affordable and, if we can convince him to come here with three young receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, would add a dimension the receiving corps currently lacks. Perrimen would be a role player here but his role is an invaluable one. Speed does so many things for an offense. He wouldn’t need to catch a ton of balls to justify his worth. That’s exactly the sort of free agent investment we need this off-season.
4. Maximize Jaylen Samuels
Running back is the position group at which I find myself most conflicted in terms of how the Steelers should proceed. As I discussed with Dave Schofield on last week’s Stat Geek podcast, the Steelers have been largely devoted to the feature back approach under Mike Tomlin and have provided no evidence that would indicate a change of heart moving forward. So, with James Conner slotted to fill the feature back role in 2020, and with Conner having a well-documented history with injuries, AND with Conner set to enter his contract year, it’s worth asking whether the Steelers should seek his replacement early in the draft. With faster versions of Conner like Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor or Georgia’s DeAndre Swift both possibilities to last until the middle of the second round, selecting a new back to “feature” would be tempting.
I just don’t see it happening. The Steelers have invested third, fourth and fifth round picks at the position the past three drafts in Conner, Benny Snell Jr. and Jaylen Samuels. There are a lot of young players in that running back group and my sense is the organization would rather let them grow together than bring in another fresh face. If that is indeed the case, it will be essential they get the most out of each of their backs.
The roles of Conner and Snell (and perhaps Kerith Whyte, who did some good things as a change-of-pace back and kick returner late last season) are pretty well defined. Conner will be the bell cow and get the bulk of the touches; Snell will spell him, provide injury insurance and perhaps serve as the short yardage and goal line back; and Whyte, should he make the roster, will be the scat-back they use to get to the edge.
That leaves Samuels. Samuels showed promise as a rookie in 2018 but was lost in the shuffle last season. His most memorable role was as a wildcat “quarterback,” which worked once then became increasingly disastrous. Samuels can do a little bit of everything: he has soft hands, surprisingly quick feet for a big back (225 pounds), can pass protect reasonably well and can line up just about anywhere in the formation.
Evolving Samuels’ role could really open up the offense. For me, this means using him in more packages with Conner where he can serve as an H-back, slot receiver, second back in the backfield or just about anything else the offensive staff can draw up. The addition of Matt Canada could prove huge in that regard. Canada was Samuels’ offensive coordinator at North Carolina State when Samuels produced nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage as a sophomore in a jack-of-all-trades role. If anyone can provide fresh insight on how to unlock Samuels’ potential, it is Canada.
If the Steelers are to retain their core trio of backs in 2020, as I believe they will, maximizing Samuels’ diverse set of skills will be integral to their success.
Let’s put it all together, then. Here’s how my ideal off-season unfolds from here:
Re-sign Dupree. Let Hargrave, Vannett and Finney walk. Sign Perriman or Jarwin in free agency. Draft Biadasz or Lewis in round two. Draft the TE or speed receiver we didn’t get in free agency in round three. Use Matt Canada’s input to carve out a better role for Samuels. Then take some of the load off of Ben’s shoulders (elbow?) by leaning more on the run game and dressing up the offense with more play-action, pre-snap motion and multiple formation groups (more on the latter as we get closer to the season). Piece of cake, right?
One man’s ideal may be another man’s folly (I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments below). But if I’m Kevin Colbert, this is the plan I’m executing. If the Steelers can do so, they should be back in the championship hunt next season.