Steelers Show Rare Offseason Urgency with Allen Robinson Trade

Brent SobleskiApril 18, 2023

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) in action during the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass

A sense of urgency invaded the Pittsburgh Steelers organization for the first time in ages.

Normally, the Steelers operate with a certain level of patience. They're not going to overpay in free agency. They don't typically make big splash moves. The entire franchise leans on its core beliefs and understands the stability found within its walls allows for a tried-and-true approach. As a result, the Steel City hasn't experienced in a losing season in professional football since 2003.

In the same breath, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in three of the last five seasons. Something needs to give.

Apparently, the Steelers front office, including Omar Khan, who's running the team for his first full offseason, and head coach Mike Tomlin decided they didn't like what they saw last season and significant changes were necessary, particularly to help in the development of second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett.

The latest came in a surprise move to acquire wide receiver Allen Robinson II from the Los Angeles Rams.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Robinson will become a Steeler pending a physical. The two sides agreed to flip seventh-round draft picks to reach an agreement. As part of the trade agreement, Pittsburgh will only pay $5 million of the remaining $15.25 million owed this season.

It's a low-risk investment for the Steelers, with the potential for a high reward.

Robinson struggled the last two years with 71 receptions for 749 yards and three touchdowns over 22 games. The 29-year-old target had been slowed by hamstring and foot ailments during those two seasons, hence why the physical is so important as part of this deal.

When healthy and not slowed by nagging issues, the nine-year veteran posted back-to-back 1,100-yard campaigns despite having Mitchell Trubisky, who happens to be a backup in Pittsburgh, and then Nick Foles as his starting quarterbacks.

Some may argue that the Rams are simply trying to dump an aging receiver on the downside of his career.

In truth, Los Angeles finds itself in a soft rebuild after pushing in all its chips to win Super Bowl LVI. Robinson was supposed to take the offense to another level after last year's acquisition, but injuries destroyed any hopes of a quality follow-up campaign. The Rams will free up a little salary-cap space and bring in younger alternatives to piece their roster back together.

A healthy Robinson is a ball-winner. He's going to use his size and length to body off defensive backs and provide another downfield threat for Pickett.

FILE - Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Allen Robinson II (1) makes a touchdown catch over Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson (26) during the first half of an NFL football game on Oct. 16, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. The Rams are in the process of trading Robinson and a seventh-round to Pittsburgh in exchange for a seventh-round pick, according to a source with knowledge of the pending agreement. The deal is pending Robinson passing a physical in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File)
AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File

Going into last season, Robinson had the league's second-most contest catches and second-highest grade on them since the start of the 2019 campaign, per Pro Football Focus.

The wide receiver's acquisition must be qualified, though.

First, he's not entering the Steelers' lineup as WR1. Generally speaking, Robinson is a solid veteran presence with the capability of playing outside the numbers or as a big slot. Diontae Johnson led the team in receptions and receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. George Pickens, meanwhile, looks like a future superstar after an impressive rookie performance, with 54 receptions for 801 yards and a team-leading four touchdown catches.

With a talented tight end like Pat Freiermuth also on the team, Robinson may be Pittsburgh's fourth-best receiving threat. That's OK. He doesn't just bring what's left of his skill set; he can also serve as a veteran mentor, especially for Pickens with how the 6'3", 200-pound sophomore plays the position.

In certain cases, Robinson and Pickens can be used as vertical bookends for deep balls or to create space underneath for other options, including running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

It's clear that the Steelers are trying to flesh out their roster and become more difficult to defend. Now it's up to offensive coordinator Matt Canada to embrace a more creative approach.

When looking at the squad's current setup, Pittsburgh's top three wide receivers are set. The Steelers have their lead back in Harris, who's coming off his first 1,000-yard campaign and seemed to find his footing over the second half the season. Freiermuth is a big, athletic target over the middle of the field. Furthermore, the front office concentrated on beefing up its offensive line.

Pittsburgh Steelers center Mason Cole (61) blocks during an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, in Pittsburgh, PA. (AP Photo/Matt Durisko)
AP Photo/Matt Durisko

The same front five started every game for the Steelers last season. Usually, continuity is a great sign for offensive line play. Still, Pittsburgh finished smack dab in the middle of Pro Football Focus' year-end O-line rankings, because the group simply didn't feature anyone of note. It was solid but not particularly good.

As a result, the Steelers signed guards Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig. Seumalo is a rather significant addition after starting at right guard for the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles last season. He agreed to a three-year, $24 million free-agent deal. Herbig can compete for one of the interior spots or serve as the unit's sixth lineman after signing a two-year, $8 million contract.

The Steelers shouldn't be done there. With this year's 17th overall pick, Pittsburgh may be in prime position to select a top offensive tackle prospect in Ohio State's Paris Johnson Jr. or Georgia's Broderick Jones to replace Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle, or acquire Tennessee's Darnel Wright to play right tackle and flip Chukwuma Okorafor to Pickett's blindside.

Either way, improved protection will make life easier on the young signal-caller, who's mobile but can benefit from a more stable pocket. Entering the '22 draft class, Pickett posted the lowest clean-pocket uncatchable/inaccurate throw percentage on passes 10 yards or longer, per PFF's Austin Gayle.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) warms up with head coach Mike Tomlin, right, looking on before an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
AP Photo/Adrian Kraus

An expanded wide receiver corps, an upgraded offensive line and a 2021 first-round back who finally had the light come on in his second year should make the offense better than last year's No. 23 ranking. With the game also expected to slow down for Pickett, another significant jump in performance should occur after he threw for seven touchdowns and nine interceptions in 13 appearances. He's putting in the time and effort this offseason for the Steelers to truly become his team.

"I'm just happy doing this. I genuinely like doing it," Pickett told Teresa Varley of the Steelers official site. "I like being here. In order to be great you have to have a love for the game. I want to be one of the best. I know what I have to do and there's a lot of things that we need to do as a team to get us to our goals. I feel like it all starts with me and my play. I've got to be the guy that takes us there. I'm ready to take it on."

Defensively, the Steelers are always prepared. They re-signed Larry Ogunjobi. Patrick Peterson replaces Cam Sutton. Damontae Kazee steps into the lineup for Terrell Edmunds. The off-ball linebackers should be upgraded with the additions of Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts. Further additions, particularly to the secondary, should be forthcoming in the draft as well.

With every new season, contenders from the previous year fade and fall out of the postseason hunt with ascending squads taking their place. The Steelers haven't operated at their normal Super Bowl standard for quite some time. But the moves they're making this offseason indicate a potential upswing is on the horizon, and the team will be led by Pickett and his improved surrounding cast.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.