No team spent more on their defense in 2023 than the Pittsburgh Steelers, spending a cool $111,687,131 — one of just two teams in the league to spend more than $110 million on the defense this season (the other being the Buffalo Bills). You might not have guessed it, however, having given up the 12th-highest yardage total in the league (5,816) this season, though they did hold opponents to the sixth-fewest points (324).
A huge part of that was injuries. All-Pro defensive tackle Cameron Heyward missed six games with a groin injury suffered in Week 1. All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick missed seven games with hamstring and knee injuries, while also playing through a broken hand midseason. They lost inside linebackers Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander to season-ending injuries. Elandon Roberts would end up banged up as well toward the end of the season, dealing with a pec injury. In short, it was a brutal year for DC Teryl Austin’s crew.
The biggest impact on this defense, though, seemed to be over the middle of the field at inside linebacker. Holcomb’s knee injury, suffered in Week 9 against the Titans, could leave his status for early 2024 up in the air. Roberts will return for another season in 2024, too, but still — it’s clear that the Steelers can’t afford to enter the season without depth at inside linebacker... but until they make some moves to clear cap space this season, they can’t afford much of anything. More on that in a bit, though.
So, let’s assume GM Omar Khan can clear up some cap space with some pre-June 1 cuts. The salary cap is a myth, after all. The Steelers are in luck that some solid inside linebackers will hit free agency in 2024, which could put them in a good spot for an upgrade. Here’s a look at some of the free-agent inside linebackers hitting the market that the Steelers could consider for depth alongside Holecomb (when healthy) and Roberts.
Projected market values and contract terms come courtesy of Spotrac.
Bobby Wagner (Seattle Seahawks)
Most recent average annual value (AAV): $5.5 million
Expiring contract terms: One year, $5.5 million
Age to start 2024 season: 34 years
6x All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner is heading into his age-34 season in 2024, which might render him among the “less appealing” options on the market, but because of that, the Steelers could have a realistic chance to make the finances work.
Despite his age, Wagner showed no signs of slowing down this season, playing the fourth most defensive snaps among linebackers this year, ranking second in the league with 130 tackles and having the fifth-lowest missed tackle rate in the league at 4.8% (min. 100 snaps). He’s a balanced linebacker and astute tackler who could be a huge asset over the middle of the field, even if he is trending toward the end of his career.
Josey Jewell (Denver Broncos)
Projected AAV: $7.7 million
Expiring contract terms: Two years, $15.3 million
Age to start 2024 season: 29 years
Josey Jewell has spent his entire career with the Denver Broncos since being drafted in the fourth round in 2018. After signing a two-year extension on his rookie contract back in 2022, he’s now set to hit free agency. Over the past two seasons, Jewell has totaled 236 tackles (9 TFL), 5.5 sacks, two interceptions on seven passes defended and four forced fumbles while leading the NFL in that span with five fumble recoveries. Jewell can do a little bit of everything and is touted for his high football IQ, which is perfect for the depth the Steelers could use at inside linebacker.
Anthony Walker Jr. (Cleveland Browns)
Most recent AAV: $1.2 million
Expiring contract terms: One year, $1.2 million
Age to start 2024 season: 29
If Anthony Walker Jr. is looking to stay in the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers should consider him. Walker signed with the Browns at the expiration of his rookie deal with the Indianapolis Colts and since has been living season-to-season on one-year deals. In addition to being among the more affordable options they could explore this year, he’d also be a huge asset in coverage. Per Next Gen Stats, over the past three seasons with the Browns, Walker leads all linebackers (min. 500 coverage snaps) having allowed just 0.5 yards per snap and posting a 19% hawk rate, which represents the percentage of targets where the nearest defender made a play on the ball, tallying either a pass defensed or interception.
The Steelers salary cap situation ahead of 2024
The Steelers are currently projected to be just over $16 million over the cap, assuming an estimated salary cap of $242,500,000, per OverTheCap. They’ll undoubtedly need to make some moves to clear that up, whether that be with cuts, trades or via a contract restructure.
Several players do come to mind immediately when it comes to potential cap casualties for the Steelers in 2024. Consider releasing punter Pressley Harvin III, wide receiver Allen Robinson, benched OT Chukwuma Okorafor, quarterback Mitch Trubisky and center Mason Cole — none of whom would be missed (sorry) in 2024 and beyond — which would free up nearly $27.5 million in cap space alone.
Heyward’s contract is also one fans will surely be eyeing, set to count $22,406,250 against the Steelers salary cap in the final year of a five-year deal. He’s already made it clear to fans that he has no intention of taking a pay cut to help the team out, but potentially the Steelers get creative and sign an extension for Heyward with void years at the end of it to spread out the financial impact of his deal on the front end.
For the Steelers to make any of these moves, however, they’ll need to figure it out. Time will tell how much wiggle room the Steelers will be able to manage with the cap... but if the “Khan artist” has proven anything to Steelers fans, it’s that he’s capable of creating something out of nothing.
Are there any other inside linebackers in the market that you hope the Steelers will consider in free agency? Let us know in the comments!