If there’s one thing I’ve learned after 11 years of writing about the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s this: There are three seasons: The regular season, the free agency season and the draft season (four if you count the annual schedule reveal).
If Pittsburgh doesn’t perform well in any of those seasons (for example, if the annual schedule reveal reveals too many night games in November), people will be disappointed (and when I say “disappointed,” I really mean freak out).
Such has been the case during the first few days of the NFL’s annual free agency period, a period that has seen the Steelers do exactly what everyone spent weeks predicting they would do: Not much.
To be fair, it wasn’t so much a matter of what the Steelers would do; it was more a matter of what they could do, which, again wasn’t going to be much for an organization that was up against it in terms of cap space.
For example, we were preparing for Bud Dupree to leave via free agency as far back as last spring when he was franchise tagged to the tune of nearly $16 million and a long-term deal ultimately could not be worked out. When Pittsburgh went ahead and selected Alex Highsmith in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the perceived hope was that he would step in and take Dupree’s place as a starting outside linebacker in 2021.
We all thought that Mike Hilton would get huge money as a free agent and that Cam Sutton would take a little less to replace him as a slot corner.
And have you seen what offensive linemen have been commanding as free agents? Trent Williams signed a deal so huge—six years, $138 million—I had to google his name just to make sure he wasn’t a shutdown corner or something. Therefore, for anyone to think Matt Feiler, a versatile lineman who has started the past three seasons at both tackle and guard and has yet to reach the age of 30, could be retained at a deal for less than the $7 million per year the Chargers paid to lure him away, why were they thinking that?
As for the Steelers' signing outside free agents, with what money?
Maybe I’m old-school (I am almost 49), but I remember the days when it was acceptable that free agents would probably leave, but you had confidence that recent draft picks and UDFAs—youngsters who were clearly being groomed for promotions—could step in and do a decent enough job.
There wasn’t much talk about “winning” and “losing” in March. You didn’t have to read and hear the same refrains every year about how (insert team here) got better while Pittsburgh got worse.
You just assumed the Steelers had a plan.
For example, they obviously have plans for Zach Banner at left or right tackle; otherwise, why sign him to a two-year deal that could ultimately be worth $9 million?
Every other man/woman cave in the Greater Pittsburgh Area/Steeler Nation probably includes a video of Robert Spillane’s hit on Derrick Henry which has no doubt been playing on a continuous loop since moments after it occurred last October. Therefore, doesn’t it stand to reason that the Steelers may fancy Spillane as a potential starter at inside linebacker in 2021 alongside Devin Bush? If not, they wouldn’t have cut the very popular Vince Williams.
I’m not saying the free agency season isn’t important. What I am saying is most of the “winners” of free agency are usually coming off really bad regular seasons and have the cap space to prove it.
The Jaguars and Jets—two teams with enough combined cap room to sign an entire country—have made lots of moves. Do you expect either—Trevor Lawrence and/or Zach Wilson, be damned—to contend for anything in 2021 other than accolades from Stephen A. Smith? Me either.
That being said, I was a little surprised to learn that the Steelers re-signed JuJu Smith-Schuster to a one-year deal on Friday for $8 million. Is that a big enough move to satisfy folks? Probably not, but there was a call for Pittsburgh to sign a veteran receiver (at least when it was assumed JuJu was leaving), and four years into his career, Smith-Schuster certainly fits the bill. Could Pittsburgh have found a better receiver from outside the organization for that kind of money? Doubtful.
In conclusion, I’m not saying the Steelers haven’t gotten worse thanks to some departures and their lack of a major deal (at least for someone from the outside). What I am saying is maybe they haven’t gotten worse.
Understand? No? OK, continue to freak out, but save some energy for the draft season.