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Free agency should shape the 2023 Steelers much more than the draft

When looking at the holes in the Steelers 2023 roster, too many default to talking about the draft rather than free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

It’s the 2023 NFL offseason. Although the NFL stretches things out to where it’s basically a year-round league with various things going on, the discussion for months is all about the upcoming 2023 season.

When talking about the Steelers team needs for 2023, a topic that I’ve been tackling on the weekends and trying to shape in a certain way over the last couple weeks, it’s interesting how much the talk quickly turns to the NFL draft. As soon as the talk starts about the Steelers having a need at a position, where to draft a player or which one would be the best available seems to be where the majority of the discussion steers.

But is this really where the Steelers are going to build the roster the most?

I understand what the NFL draft really brings. It brings the future. Players drafted by the Steelers are with the team for at least the next four seasons as long as the Steelers want to retain them. Knowing that the player selected this April is already under contract through 2026 really gives teams what they are looking for in seasons to come.

But when looking strictly what the Steelers need for 2023, the draft isn’t always the answer. Up until the unprecedented 2021 NFL draft and season, one where the salary cap dipped about $20 million from what it was expected to be, the Steelers don’t go into the draft where they feel like they must have answers for the upcoming season. Granted the first-round pick is much more likely to see the field sooner than a sixth-round pick, but the Steelers having to call on rookies the very first snap of Week 1 is something they prefer to avoid.

Look at the 2022 season. The Steelers top three draft picks were a quarterback who they realistically were not going to play to start the season despite how he looked in the preseason, a wide receiver who could see the field but didn’t have to have the biggest role in the offense even though he was ready for it, and a rotational player on the defensive line. Although their draft class came through with Kenny Pickett being the starter in Week 5 and George Pickens coming on so strong the Steelers could trade away Chase Claypool, they didn’t have a situation where they had to depend on them. It’s simply the way they prefer to do things.

Several weeks ago on the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I answered the question about the amount of playing time the rookies were called on in 2022 versus recent years. Looking back at the five years prior to 2022 for comparison sake, it was the 2021 class that stood head and shoulders above everyone else when I came to usage there first season. The 2022 class, although they had the second-most snaps played by rookies, was much closer to the 2019 draft class (third on the list) then they were 2021.

What gets interesting is comparing those snaps to those that were played by free agent signings. The Steelers rookies in 2022, defined as any player on the Steelers who it was their first season removed from playing in college, played 2,890 snaps with 78 games played and 28 starts among all the players. But when looking at Steelers free agents, they played 5,527 snaps with 120 games and 84 starts.

But wait, there’s more…

The numbers of the free agents came only from players who were outside free agents, meaning they were signed after being with another team the previous season. When also taking into account the Steelers unrestricted free agents who signed back with the team, there was another 3,745 snaps, 87 games played, and 51 starts. When combining these numbers with the free agents from other teams, it comes to 9,272 snaps, 207 games played, and 135 starts. This equates to 3.21 times more snaps played by free agents, 2.65 times more games played, and 4.82 times more starts. This also does not include players that were acquired via trade by the Steelers last season.

So when looking at the numbers from last season, the players acquired via free agency will likely make much more impact to the Steelers 2023 season than those acquired via the NFL draft. If looking beyond 2023, it’s a whole different story as the Steelers are a team who builds through the draft. But the players drafted in 2023 will be significant players in shaping the roster for 2024 when the same questions arise again this time next year.

I enjoy a good draft discussion. I know many of you enjoy talking about the draft and the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers. But what appears to be the Steelers biggest need right now may be completely off the board come draft time due to free agency. My go to example is in 2020 when the Steelers had to have a new tight end and that was a big portion of what was talked about for their draft when they had their first selection which was in the second round. But after the Steelers signed Eric Ebron during free agency, the need was moved so far down the team’s list of needs that they didn’t even draft one that year. It’s just how it works.

I think many fans realize that free agency is more important. The problem is, it’s so much harder to speculate at this time. It’s easy to look at the top 17 players in the draft and realize that the Steelers will get one of them. In fact, it can be narrowed down even more by players that are certain to be off the board at that time. When it comes to free agency, it could be anyone who’s out there that the Steelers could acquire. At this time last year, I didn’t expect names like James Daniels, Mason Cole, Gunner Olszewski, Damontae Kazee, or a number of others to be in consideration. Perhaps that’s why the talking points are aimed more at the draft.

Free agency is now less than a week away when the legal tampering period kicks off at noon on Monday, March 13, 2023. Whether it’s a move being made right away or signings that are made after the initial frenzy of things, the Steelers are going to do a lot to shape their 2023 roster in the coming weeks.

Then the 2023 draft occurs. And by that time, the Steelers team needs may look very different.