Biggest Roster Decisions Facing Pittsburgh Steelers This Offseason
Though the Pittsburgh Steelers are focused on finishing the 2017 season on a high note and game-planning for the postseason games to follow, the 2018 offseason—the NFL's business period—is not far behind. Roster and contract decisions are on the horizon, and not all will be easy for the Steelers to make.
Here are some of the biggest roster decisions the Steelers will be facing in the new year.
In 2017, Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell has been playing under the franchise tag, worth $12.12 million for the season.
That is a result of he and the Steelers being unable to come to an agreement on a long-term contract during the summer. Bell said then that he's worth a $15 million-per-year salary, owing both to his value as a rusher and a receiver. He wasn't wrong about his on-field versatility then, and it has remained on display throughout the season, making him one of the most indispensable players on Pittsburgh's offense.
Bell is the NFL's leading rusher, with 307 carries for 1,222 yards, and he has scored all eight of the Steelers' rushing touchdowns. He's also the team's third-leading receiver when it comes to yardage, with 80 catches for 627 yards and two scores. He leads the team in after-catch yardage with 617 and has a combined 99 first downs rushing and receiving.
Bell is betting on himself this season and appears to be winning just months away from becoming an unrestricted free agent. And the crucial role he plays in Pittsburgh's offense may give the Steelers no choice but to give into his contract demands or else tag him for a second year at the cost of $14.54 million in 2018.
Regardless of what the Steelers do—contract, tag or let walk—the decision they make on Bell's black-and-gold future is the biggest of the looming offseason.
Since 2011, Marcus Gilbert has served as a starting offensive tackle for the Steelers, playing so well that he earned a five-year, $30.815 million contract in 2014. A season ago, he was responsible for just four sacks. But in 2017, he hasn't been on the field much.
Because of an early-season hamstring injury and a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, Gilbert has played just five games this year. And though he's expected to resume his starting role in Monday's game against the Houston Texans. That means Chris Hubbard will be relegated to the bench, though he's done well himself in Gilbert's stead, giving up four sacks in 10 starts.
But Hubbard's time as the Steelers' starting right tackle may not be over. Hubbard is an unrestricted free agent in 2018 after making $1.797 million in 2017. While he may bet on himself in the free-agent market given his strong showing this year, the Steelers may also make him an offer before that can happen and move on from Gilbert as well.
Gilbert's current deal would cost the Steelers around $7.4 million in salary-cap space next season, but it will amount to just $3.4 million in dead money should they release him. The savings could result in a new (and potentially more affordable) deal for Hubbard.
Either way, the Steelers have to examine the future of the right tackle position in the offseason and determine if Gilbert should remain their starter or if Hubbard represents the right balance of talent and value.
The Steelers will need to boost both the depth of their safety positions and the quality of that depth in the offseason. While Mike Mitchell remains established as the starting free safety, strong safety Sean Davis has frequently been a liability as a tackler and in coverage. And backups Robert Golden and J.J. Wilcox haven't been much better in relief and situational roles.
While one solution could be elevating Jordan Dangerfield from his 2017 position on the practice squad, safety is still a position that needs work. The problem is that the Steelers have a lot of money set to be invested in their safeties in 2018—nearly $14.3 million for four players, or the ninth-most in the league in this pre-free-agency period.
However, $3.125 million of that is Wilcox's cap hit for 2018, all in the form of non-guaranteed salary. Thus, the Steelers would save the full amount by releasing him, making such a move a no-brainer. That money can thus be used on another, less-expensive safety or redistributed to other positions, with safety then becoming a draft-day priority for Pittsburgh.
The tight end position is one that the Steelers have struggled to round out effectively for a few years now, but 2018 presents another chance for the team to find a dynamic player to add to their roster.
In 2017, Pittsburgh's tight ends have been relatively efficient touchdown-scorers but aren't, on the whole, much of a focal point of the offense. The group is led by Jesse James with 41 catches for 363 yards and three touchdowns. After him is Vance McDonald, with nine catches for 131 yards and a score, and Xavier Grimble, with four catches for 30 yards and a touchdown.
None of their jobs are safe in the coming year, based both on this season's production as well as their contract status.
Grimble is an exclusive-rights free agent who isn't guaranteed an offer in 2018; if he gets one, it won't likely be lucrative. James has a $757,228 cap hit but costs just $52,228 to release, with his only remaining guarantees being that portion of his prorated signing bonus. McDonald's total compensation for 2018 is $4.6 million, but none is guaranteed, making that a 100 percent savings should he be released.
Indeed, it's possible both from a logistical and financial standpoint for the Steelers to revamp their tight end depth chart in the upcoming offseason. While they may not, moving on from one or two of their three current tight ends is a believable outcome.
In Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have two established wide receivers who will not be leaving the roster anytime soon. However, beyond that on the roster is anyone's guess.
While the Steelers seem more likely than not to keep Martavis Bryant for 2018, given his level of talent versus his affordable $705,000 salary—and could give him a long-term contract—he's the only non-Brown, non-Smith-Schuster true receiver with cash on the books for next year.
Darrius Heyward-Bey will still be under contract, but he's primarily a special-teams player who has just two catches for 47 yards this year. Eli Rogers, meanwhile, will be a restricted free agent in 2018 and Justin Hunter, unrestricted; Rogers has caught 16 passes for 142 yards and a score this year and Hunter has three catches for 18 yards while being active in just five games.
The Steelers will need to determine if either is worth new contract offers. And even if either Hunter or Rogers returns in 2018, they will still need to build up their depth chart at receiver behind Brown, Smith-Schuster and, presumably, Bryant. With the Steelers relying heavily on a big-play passing offense, a robust group of receivers is necessary.
Nearly 12 months ago, following the Steelers' loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger openly contemplated retirement. Though he ultimately opted not to, the topic frequently came up throughout the offseason, and just Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Paul Zeise wrote that "most people believe [it] is the case" that Roethlisberger will either retire this offseason or the next.
Should that happen, either this offseason or the next, the Steelers must prepare. The first step is to evaluate the current backup quarterback situation.
Rookie Joshua Dobbs seems safe, either destined to move up to No. 2 on the depth chart or remain the No. 3, because of his recent draft providence (2017 Round 4). Current primary backup, Landry Jones, however, might be released in favor of someone more promising as not just Roethlisberger's understudy but also his heir.
Though the Steelers brought Jones back in 2017 on a two-year, $4.4 million contract, he will cost only $300,00 to release this offseason, by way of his remaining signing bonus. While Jones has the advantage of a close familiarity with Pittsburgh's offense, that won't be enough to save his job if the Steelers become in the market for a starter-caliber quarterback who isn't too much of a talent-level drop from Roethlisberger.
The time is approaching quickly for the Steelers to figure out what life post-Roethlisberger is going to look like. It would be wise if they do so in 2018, regardless of what he chooses to do.