It isn’t a secret how the Pittsburgh Steelers are in the bottom five of the NFL as it pertains to salary cap space remaining in their budget. While not over the cap, the Steelers are as close as it gets as the new league year is set to begin in just a few short weeks.
This lack of financial wiggle room has made fans extremely uncomfortable. Why? Because when you combine it with their lack of NFL Draft capital and suddenly the moves traditionally made, even for the Steelers, to help the team improve don’t seem to be in the cards.
However, the salary cap is expected to increase again in 2020, and if the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is passed by the players it will allow the Steelers to restructure contracts to help free up some cap space heading into next season.
With that said, even if all those chips fall into place, the Steelers won’t possess a ton of space to sign players. But there are low-cost players available who could fit a need at certain positions.
For the sake of this exercise, the biggest positions of need for the Steelers are:
Interior Offensive Line (G/C)
The fine folks at Pro Football Focus (PFF) have put together a list of low-cost players for each position. Let’s see who they would have slotted as viable options for the black-and-gold:
Eifert is one of the biggest “what could have been” cases in the entire NFL. From a dislocated elbow that caused him to miss nearly the entire 2014 season to an ankle fracture that caused him to miss the final 12 games of the 2018 season and with more of his fair share of ailments in between, Eifert has simply been unable to stay on the football field. The 2019 season was the first time in his seven-year career that Eifert was able to play in all 16 regular-season games. Obviously, the biggest concern for prospective suitors is whether you can expect him to remain healthy for a full season again, or even the majority of a season for that matter.
Eifert’s 2019 season didn’t have the upside of what we saw in 2015 when Eifert earned a receiving grade of 89.7 and caught 13 touchdown passes, but he was a solid option at tight end on limited snaps. The Cincinnati Bengals used him almost exclusively in passing situations — just 80 of his 491 snaps came as a run blocker — and he put up respectable numbers with a 65.8 receiving grade and 43 receptions for 436 yards on that bad Bengals offense. The physical toll of all those injuries may have sapped some of Eifert’s athleticism, but he still makes some sense as a cheaper alternative to guys like Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper and Eric Ebron for a team in need of a receiving threat at the tight end position.
Wisniewski is a veteran option at guard who may fly under the radar this offseason, but that shouldn’t be the case after winning his second Super Bowl in three seasons, this time as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. Wisniewski is entering his 10th season in the league, and he is coming off a season with the fewest snaps of his career in 2019 (416). Many of those snaps came late in the season during the Chiefs’ postseason push after he filled in for an injured Andrew Wylie as the team’s starting left guard. All he did was earn an overall grade of 70.9 that ranked ninth among qualifying left guards on the season. It was the seventh time in nine seasons that Wisniewski graded out at 70.0 or higher, and the only poor showing of his career came with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018 (56.2 overall grade). Wisniewski is a reliable pass blocker, and he can be a low-cost, plug-and-play starter at guard. Those options aren’t plentiful on the free-agent market — we’re looking at you, Minnesota.
When it comes to positional groups, the free-agent center market is pretty scant. The only two players at the position to make an appearance on the list of PFF’s top 100 free agents are Connor McGovern at No. 83 and Austin Blythe at No. 98. That means players like Karras suddenly become more interesting than they might otherwise be if more players were available. He was strictly a reserve over the first three seasons of his career for the New England Patriots after coming out of Illinois as a sixth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Karras made good use of the limited opportunities he received, but the opportunities weren’t plentiful.
Perriman was a bust. Through the first three seasons of his career, he had nine drops compared to just 43 receptions, and it didn’t look all that much like he would ever live up to his first-round billing.
As Perriman was heading into his fourth season, training camp receptions had sarcastic onlookers yelling, “Oh my God, he caught it!” Per an ESPN piece labeling Perriman as Ravens’ public enemy No. 1. Needless to say, the fresh start with the Cleveland Browns in 2018 was welcomed with open arms. Perriman didn’t light the world on fire with that opportunity, but there were significant signs of improvement, as he earned a 76.0 receiving grade on 16 receptions for 340 yards and, most importantly, no drops.
That earned Perriman a 1-year, $4 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past offseason, and he continued to show growth towards that first-round potential. Paired with Jameis Winston’s proclivity for pushing the ball downfield, Perriman found a home in Tampa Bay as a deep threat. Among all wide receivers with 50 or more targets, Perriman led the NFL in average depth of target (18.8 yards), and he dropped just one of his 65 targets on the season. Injuries to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin thrust him into the No. 1 role late in the season, which was a role that Perriman thrived in with three consecutive 100-yard games to close the year.
In a recent article where I sorted through the deep interior defender free-agent class, I deemed Harris the “wild card” of the group. That revolves around the question as to whether he can repeat the elite grade that we saw from him in the 2018 season (90.4) on an increased workload. In the last three seasons, Harris has recorded overall grades of 76.3, 90.4 and 76.8 on snap counts of 516, 391 and 636, respectively. When the snaps went up, the grade dipped.
It’s not as if Harris was ineffective on the increased workload. His 76.8 PFF grade ranked 17th among players at the position, and his PFF WAR value sat inside the top 25 players at the position, as well. That’s part of what makes his projected 3-year, $16 million contract look like a bargain relative to his peers. At worst, you’re getting a plus starter who has three consecutive seasons grading at 75.0 or higher. At that price point, teams should be interested.
What would you think of one, or maybe more than one, of these options being targeted by the Steelers in free agency? Does anyone, like Perriman, cause you pause after recent events? Or do you think any of these players could be a welcome addition to the black-and-gold trying to get back to their dominant ways?
Let us know in the comment section below, and be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black-and-gold as they press on through the offseason.