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Why older veterans don’t fit the Steelers’ long-term needs

No, not every big-time player that becomes available should jump ship to the Steel City.

Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Earlier this week, one of the first legitimate noteworthy free agency moves of the 2023 NFL offseason had been enacted. Shockingly, it wasn’t the Steelers extending long-snapper Christian Kuntz.

On Wednesday, the Titans released three-time Pro Bowl tackle Taylor Lewan. While Lewan ended up being a headliner of sorts, Tennessee also let go of receiver Robert Woods, linebacker Zach Cunningham and kicker Randy Bullock in order to create cap space.

Certain players have had their contracts restructured or altered in order to generate more immediate cap space, and others have signed extensions. Until this point, though, few notable players had been informed that they could hit the open market.

It turned out that Lewan opened the transactional floodgates of sorts. A day later, the Rams decided to part ways with six-time All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner. On Friday, the Lions cut DL Michael Brockers, but the news was superseded by the Rams appearing “very likely” to trade star CB Jalen Ramsey.

If you so much as peruse the replies and interactions with tweets of this ilk, it’s impossible not to notice fans of teams clamoring for these players to join their squads or see jersey swaps already in new colors. This sentiment, of course, applies to Steelers fans — who haven’t been shy in trying to court talent to the Steel City.

It’s easy to read a league alert about a player becoming available and promptly let your mind wander, thinking back to the fond memories of being a general manager in a Madden Franchise simulation and adding players without consequence. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly work like that in real life (just ask the Madden trade simulator).

Every team in the NFL is intent on making a better version of its roster, and that sentiment applies in Pittsburgh. At the same time, most of the available veteran options don’t mesh with what’s best for the long-term trajectory of the franchise.

Given that Kenny Pickett is on a rookie contract, some would argue that the Steelers should strike while the iron is hot, creating the most vaunted overall roster in order to capitalize on cheap deals — including those of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens. The issue, though, is that the Steelers aren’t just one or two big pieces away.

Offensively, Pittsburgh possesses young cornerstones at major positions, such as QB, RB, WR and TE, all of which are key to succeeding over time. Defensively, though, there’s only legitimate long-term youth stardom at edge rusher and safety. Consequently, the focal point of Omar Khan’s first offseason should be to establish foundational future talent at key positions, an idea that dovetails with a burgeoning core as well as a roster retooling.

When considering options across the market, Khan and Tomlin have to ask themselves this question: Is this current team ready to win it all now? The answer isn’t exactly a resounding yes.

The fact that the Steelers went 9-8 last year was highly impressive, because the team had several major holes and really wasn’t very cohesive for much of the season. In large part, that stemmed from few clear solutions at offensive line, defensive line, linebacker and cornerback. Those same areas of need are still paramount in 2023 — not only in the interim, but to build a roster that can contend for as long as possible.

If the Steelers inked Wagner or Brockers, they would certainly help to shore up some of the most vulnerable areas in linebacker and defensive line, respectively. At the same time, both are 32, and retirement is on the horizon. Is it really in the best interest of the franchise to try to go “all in” for 2023 in light of deep-seated deficiencies, plus the need for continued development from Pickett?

Looking closer at Ramsey also presents a more intriguing dilemma. On one hand, if the Steelers acquired the six-time Pro Bowler, they’d immediately add one of the best defensive backs in football, making their secondary a strength. That temptation, though, should be superseded by short- and long-term cost.

To actually get Ramsey, a team will have to surrender pretty premium draft selections, especially given the Rams don’t pick until the second round. The Steelers do have three picks in the top 50, but is it really worth parting with one or more of those to land a 28-year-old corner who carries at least a $25 million cap hit for the next two seasons?

Another major element to consider for this offseason is Pittsburgh’s recent history with veteran free agent signings, which hasn’t exactly been stellar. James Daniels, Larry Ogunjobi, Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee provided sparks after coming into the 412 last summer. However, Myles Jack, Mason Cole and Gunner Olszewski had disappointments.

In particular, the Steelers’ approach to the inside linebacker position has served as a bit of a cautionary tale over the last few years. The team signed Jack last offseason; the year before, it traded for Joe Schobert. In 2020, the Steelers traded for Avery Williamson midseason. 2019 featured signing Mark Barron.

For years, Pittsburgh has attempted to bolster its inside linebacker room with veterans, but the results have been far from intended. ILB is only one position, but it underscores that finding stopgaps doesn’t have a high success rate over several seasons.

In order to best position itself to compete for the years ahead, the Steelers have to avoid the phenomenon of older adds, something which aligned with past rosters but doesn’t fit the current outlook. With Cam Heyward not getting any younger and little youthful blue-chip talent at OL/DL/LB/CB, that rings especially true this offseason.

The point of this article is not to say that Pittsburgh should avoid free agency altogether. Filling holes and finding upgrades via cheaper players can absolutely be beneficial. For example, bringing in Woods as a blocking-oriented slot receiver would complement Pickens and Johnson beautifully on the outside.

But, shelling out tons of cash to bring in household names isn’t going to solve the Steelers’ deeper problems this season or beyond. With star power already secured at several significant positions going forward, it’s incumbent on Pittsburgh’s front office to replicate that method for remaining weaknesses — and thus to create a team that can compete not only in 2023, but well beyond that.