From rookie minicamp starting on May 13 to mandatory minicamp concluding on June 9, the Steelers recently wrapped up their first legitimate phase of team practices held in the offseason. The team will not don pads or practice drills until the first practice of training camp on July 27, when Pittsburgh returns to St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
Early June to the end of July can be a slow period for NFL fans eager to watch their favorite players in jerseys or to listen to quotes attained by reporters in front of players’ lockers; little happens in the span of time besides the franchise tag deadline. However, with a month and a half until the Steelers hit the field again, there are still several important items to monitor.
From contracts to potential moves to more, here are five storylines to follow until the Steelers begin training camp.
1. Extensions for Minkah Fitzpatrick, Diontae Johnson and Chris Boswell
Both Fitzpatrick and Johnson have expressed their desire for new deals, as each is a free agent at the end of the 2022 season. Fitzpatrick has seemingly been “holding in,” not participating in drills— as T.J. Watt did last summer until he landed his gaudy extension— while Johnson missed the initial portion of voluntary OTAs.
In most experts’ eyes, a new contract for Fitzpatrick will be the first domino to fall, as the safety has been one of the Steelers’ defensive mainstays and has been in the NFL longer than Johnson has.
Entering the last year of his rookie contract and after the organization exercised his fifth-year option, Fitzpatrick is slated to make $10.6 million in total cash in 2022, which ranks 14th among safeties. The current highest-paid safety in the NFL is Jamal Adams at an annual average of $17.645 million, so Fitzpatrick will presumably seek $18-20 million each year. A contract of five years and $90 million seems reasonable.
The league’s receiver market has continued to explode, with Cooper Kupp and Hunter Renfrow landing huge sums in the last week alone. Renfrow’s extension was for two years and $32 million; with receivers continuing to aggregate more money, Johnson will probably want $18-22 million each season.
Finally, do not forget about Chris Boswell, who has quietly been one of the best kickers in pro football since a subpar 2018. Per special teams coordinator Danny Smith, it appears that a revised contract for Boswell is already underway.
At age 29, Justin Tucker signed a four-year, $20 million extension with the Ravens. Boswell is 31, so mirrored numbers could be in order.
2. Kenny Pickett’s rookie deal
With Pickett immersed in a quarterback battle with Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph, the principle that the 20th overall pick is yet to sign his initial NFL contract has flown under the radar.
Pickett is one of two 2022 first-rounders yet to ink a deal, joining 29th overall pick Cole Strange. Further, the quarterback is the remaining Steelers pick this year that has not signed.
There is no shortage of time for Pittsburgh and Pickett to agree to terms, but avoiding disputes as preseason time nears would be ideal for both sides.
Recent examples of first-round quarterbacks selected in a similar spot are Mac Jones (15th overall; four years, $15.59 million) and Jordan Love (26th overall; four years, $12.38 million). Expect Pickett’s deal to be four years and under $16 million with a traditional fifth-year option as that is the estimate based on his draft position by overthecap.com.
3. Does the team add any defensive linemen?
On June 1, Stephon Tuitt announced his intentions to retire, hanging up the cleats after missing the 2021 season. The Steelers have sufficient depth along their defensive line next to Cam Heyward in the form of the returning Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley, Montravius Adams, Isaiahh Loudermilk and rookie DeMarvin Leal. At the same time, DL coach Karl Dunbar is banking on Wormley sustaining his seven sacks and 10 quarterback hits in 2021 as well as is banking on the development of youngsters Loudermilk and Leal.
If Pittsburgh does decide to add a cheaper free agent defensive lineman, there are still several solid options available, including Ndamukong Suh, Eddie Goldman, Linval Joseph, Star Lotulelei and Larry Ogunjobi. Each would provide experience and depth to stabilize the unit.
Alternatively, the Steelers could try to pry a defensive lineman from another team. Trade candidates could include Fletcher Cox, Jarran Reed, Poona Ford and Davon Godchaux.
4. When do we get a first look at the new front office in action?
Since Omar Khan was named the Steelers’ new general manager on May 26, the only contracts Khan and his team have generated are for Tuzar Skipper and Calvin Austin III while waiving Trevon Mason and Isaiah Johnson. In other words, few of these moves were convoluted or unexpected.
Pittsburgh fans should be eager to watch the first few transactions that Khan, assistant general manager Andy Weidl, and player personnel coordinator Dan Rooney Jr. make at the helm. These could include extensions for Fitzpatrick, Johnson or Boswell; signing an aforementioned defensive lineman; or the unlikelier event of cutting a player before training camps starts.
By the end of the Steelers’ stay in Latrobe on August 18, we should have a better idea of how the new triumvirate will operate and the philosophies they will adopt.
5. Will Heinz Field keep its name?
With fans mired in minicamp and OTAs, the uncertainty surrounding the name of the Steelers’ stadium has largely been neglected.
The franchise’s contract with Kraft Heinz for the stadium’s naming rights expired after last season, which was following an extension of the name “Heinz Field.” Latest reports from late March reveal that the two sides were exploring a longer-term continuation, but little noise has been produced since then.
It’s likely that the Steelers will have settled on a conglomerate to provide its stadium’s name before 2022, so this should be resolved in the next few months.