There has been a reoccurring theme to all of my offseason articles thus far. How could the Steelers acquire much needed, game-changing players at good value, all while replenishing the talent reserves up and down the roster?
Way back at the beginning of the offseason, I surmised how the Steelers were smack dab in the middle of a rebuilding period, even if the Steelers hierarchy treats that phrase like a four letter word. I also expressed it was highly unlikely the Steelers could fill all their glaring needs in one offseason.
I assumed it would take a couple of free agency periods and draft classes to return to contender status. The Steelers are trying their best to prove me wrong.
The Steelers have filled multiple needs in free agency already. The Steelers went from being a team without an optimal option at starting center in 2021, to a team with up to four legitimate candidates.
Kendrick Green has a rookie season filled with struggles under his belt. If the old adage "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger" is true, then Green should be greatly improved this season. Free agent newcomer Mason Cole has NFL experience at both center and guard, and proven capable at both. Prized free agent acquisition James Daniels is a four year veteran at only 24 years young, who also has NFL experience at all interior positions, although he is penciled in at guard. The future of the Steelers interior offensive line appears to be in good hands.
The Steelers lost three of their top five wide receivers in free agency, including their most experienced pass catcher in JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers did a masterful job filling two of those openings by double dipping at receiver in the 2022 NFL Draft. First, the Steelers selected an athletic deep threat with length and speed in Georgia receiver George Pickens with their second round selection. Then they drafted a versatile weapon with elite speed in fourth round selection Calvin Austin lll from Memphis. Both young men were considered excellent values when and where they were taken. It should shock absolutely no one if the Steelers add a veteran presence to the extremely young receiver group.
Steelers General Manager (GM) Kevin Colbert expressed the desire for the Steelers to have four quarterbacks heading into training camp. The Steelers drafted two signal callers in the 2022 draft: Kenny Pickett from Pittsburgh in the first, and Chris Oladokun from South Dakota State in the seventh, to fill their desired quota. The Steelers have a full stable of young talent at the position.
The Steelers have a couple of talented young tight ends in Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry. Freiermuth enjoyed an impressive all around rookie season, and appears on the verge of a breakout sophomore campaign. Gentry was a pleasant surprise in his third season, and has cemented his status as TE2. The third spot on the depth chart potentially could be sixth round selection Connor Heyward from Michigan State, as the rookie's versatility will allow him to possibly fill multiple positions on the depth chart.
The Steelers have one of the best young running backs in the NFL in Najee Harris. Harris had the most rushing yards and combined yardage for a rookie last season; plus leading the entire league in total touches, all while playing in an extremely limited offense thanks in no small part to an atrocious offensive line. Harris merely needs at least an average line to be a Pro Bowl caliber player. The Steelers depth at running back is a huge question mark. Mike Tomlin has been reluctant to utilize his running back depth, even when he has some. That has to change moving forward. The Steelers have to find some quality depth, and then the Steelers coaches have to be committed to utilizing it, or risk shortening Najee's career.
That brings us to what I believe is the Steelers biggest need still left unfulfilled on offense: offensive tackle depth. Specifically, swing tackle.
The Steelers have decided to run it back with last year's starting tackle combination, so to speak. Dan Moore Jr. and Chukwuma Okorafor are the returning starters, and both players are young and physically talented. The Steelers are trusting both players will be able to show growth and improvement with another year of experience, coupled with the expected improvement along the interior.
The Steelers are also hoping both projected starting tackles will benefit from the tutelage of new offensive line coach Pat Meyer, and that the perceived zone blocking concepts will be a better fit for Moore and Okorafor's mobility and abilities.
The Steelers current depth chart after the starters consists of Chaz Green and Joe Haeg. Two well-traveled veterans who are emergency spot starters at best at this point in their careers. The Steelers also have former undrafted free agent John Leglue filling out the depth chart. Leglue is a great story, and has shown the capacity to perform at both guard and tackle, but it's anybody's guess if he is capable of eventually being the full-time swing tackle.
The remaining free agent market at tackle is filled with recognizable names that are mostly long in the tooth and possibly past their expiration dates. If the Steelers are patient, they may be able to get a proven guy on the cheap. A player capable of defying the odds one last time by exceeding even their own expectations. The end of the preseason waiver wire may prove worth watching.
The Steelers aren't looking for a star, or even a starter. They just need an improvement on what they already have.
Part 2 of this series will focus on the Steelers biggest glaring hole on defense. Stay tuned.