There will be plenty of headlines that will be written extensively on BTSC over the next three plus months, if the season opens on time. Years past the articles that have enamored most BTSC fans has been drama related. Ben Roethlisberger hinting at retirement a few years back, the Le’Veon Bell saga that would never end, the mental implosion by Antonio Brown, just to name a few. Hopefully, this offseason will not have the drama, but other articles will garner most of the headlines.
Now this offseason we have topics that will be written about extensively. Big Ben’s elbow and how healthy will he be when the season starts and how will the pecking order be for the backup quarterback situation pan out? Will James Conner go back to being the bellcow and how will the running back rotation look behind him? Can the defense repeat its outstanding performance of a year ago?
For me, I will let others focus on those aspects and will not write much about them because of some of the other unheralded facets. Three aspects that I believe will get overlooked will be, overall team depth, how the team plans on trying to sign the multitude of unrestricted free agents with our cap space in 2020 and 2021, and the lack of talent at the nose tackle position.
Looking at the overall team depth, one aspect that really jumps out is the lack of veteran depth and inexperienced players. The following are players who I project to be backups with five or more years of NFL experience who are on the roster.
Eric Ebron (If you feel he is the starter then replace him with Vance McDonald)
A case could be made for Daniel McCullers being veteran depth but I will pencil him in as the starting nose tackle. (More on that later.)
Backups with the most snaps last year and their snap count.
Mason Rudolph - 523
Devlin Hodges - 376
Jaylen Samuels - 362
Zach Banner - 216
Benny Snell - 166
No other player had over 100 snaps on offense.
Alualu - 432
Cam Sutton - 265
No other player had over 100 snaps on defense. You could split hairs calling either Mike Hilton or Vince Williams a backup, but I included neither.
Depending on how you look at the list of free agents after the 2020 season, there could be nine starters whose contracts will expire. (Jordan Berry and McCullers would be the ones who are debatable being called starters.) The Steelers have milked about as much money as they can with restructured contracts and sit at $5.7 million under the cap, (Not including the 2020 rookie class along with other offseason expenses.) so signing Bud Dupree or Cam Heyward to extensions might be the only to bring about any kind of cap savings. (The team does not have enough cap space to conduct all the moves that are still necessary in 2020.) Any long-term contract takes away from the Steelers 2021 cap with the team $28 million in the black but with only 38 players under contract. (The cap could shrink for the 2021 season but more on that another time.) So dealing with the cap cannot be looked at one year at a time.
The nose tackle position is maybe something I have stuck in my head that is a bigger deal than it really is but until that angst is negated, the position will gnaw at me. I was a tremendous fan of Javon Hargrave who will be sorely missed. He surpassed everyone’s expectations both in defending the run and pass game. Now that he is gone via free agency to the Philadelphia Eagles, the prospects to fill his shoes alarms me. How do we fill the void? I have Big Dan penciled in but fans in Steeler Nation have talked about Alualu, Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux, or even (gulp) Carlos Davis eating up the snaps that Gravedigger leaves behind. Most of those players besides McCullers baffle me because of their lack of size or lack of playing time at nose tackle or their lack of talent. I am not saying McCullers is a rock star, but he is a gargantuan body that the Steelers have kept around for a half decade for a reason.
I have seen others suggest the team not run with a nose tackle and run oodles of subpackages instead. McCullers and Gravedigger accounted for almost 75% of the defensive snaps last season, so is this train of thought realistic with solid running backs in our division and others on our schedule to go with less beef up front? For me, the answer is no.
The health of Big Ben will be at the forefront of the entire offseason. His inability to recover from elbow surgery could derail the 2020 season like it did in 2019. That being said, the NFL is a team sport and all 53 players are expected to contribute in one fashion or another. I just worry that our thin depth and backups with little to no playing time, may be as devastating. It shocked me that GM Kevin Colbert ignored the nose tackle position in free agency while waiting until the seventh round to pull the trigger on Davis. (gasp) While those aspects could derail the 2020 season, how the team handles the players whose contracts are expiring, affects the team’s future. For me, I view these as important topics that may fly under the radar for most and I plan on expanding on my thoughts more over the upcoming months on these important subjects.