Steelers' Biggest Keys to Having Successful NFL Offseason
The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers are set to look a lot different than the 2020 version.
That's what happens when a team faces one of the more dire salary-cap situations in a year when the cap is set to go down after the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with retirements from Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald, the Steelers are set to hit the offseason at $6 million over the cap, per Spotrac.
That puts them 26th in the league, with key players such as Bud Dupree, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner set to hit free agency.
There are still moves to be made that will put them in a better position, but the fact remains the Steelers are facing a tough offseason in which they have to decide on their longtime franchise quarterback while keeping an eye on the future.
The good news is the franchise is in capable hands. General manager Kevin Colbert has manned the position since 2000 and has only overseen one losing record.
Here are some of the biggest keys he's going to have to navigate to make this spring and summer a success.
Prepare for a Future Without Ben Roethlisberger
The biggest question heading into this offseason is obviously whether the Steelers will re-up with Ben Roethlisberger. Right now, the quarterback is set to return to Pittsburgh for his 19th season and will cost the team a little over $41 million.
That's really not an option. The Steelers' cap situation just doesn't lend itself to paying their quarterback that much money, especially given his play down the stretch last season.
So, there are really only a few ways the organization can go forward with the 38-year-old. Either they will restructure the deal so that much of his cap hit is kicked down the road, or they will simply cut or trade him. The quarterback's dead-cap charge is $22.25 million if they release him.
That's a massive dead-cap charge but still saves them $19 million against the cap.
Either way, Roethlisberger's days in the league and with the only team he's known are numbered. And that means the Steelers need an exit plan.
They've already taken some steps toward that. They have played Mason Rudolph in a backup role and will still have him for the final season of his rookie contract. They made the move to sign Dwayne Haskins, giving them another intriguing young option.
But preparing for a future without Roethlisberger involves more than just finding the next quarterback. It's about giving the next guy the things he needs to succeed.
The Steelers can't just have an eye on competing next season because it's a long shot. This offseason has to be about giving the next quarterback a competitive roster to work with.
Rebuild the Run Game
Only the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were perpetually playing from behind, threw the ball more often than the Steelers last season. Under Randy Fichtner, Pittsburgh threw the ball 65.5 percent of the time as Roethlisberger averaged 40.5 attempts per game.
That kind of unbalance makes things harder for everyone. The offensive line has to deal with a defensive front who knows it is a pass. Receivers are running routes on nearly every play, and linebackers can get to their drops without much thought of stopping the run.
With the Steelers promoting Matt Canada to offensive coordinator, there's hope things will change from a scheme perspective. Now the team has to do things to help from a personnel perspective.
Canada has spent a lot of time in the college ranks, and his offenses at Wisconsin, North Carolina State and Maryland all featured the run fairly prominently. To cash in on that tendency, the Steelers are going to have to invest draft capital in the run game.
That means they should be targeting either a running back or an offensive lineman with their first selection in the draft. Obviously, if the board falls in a way where a quarterback like Mac Jones is available, that would be worth consideration.
However, a difference-making running back like Najee Harris or an Alejandro Villanueva replacement like Alex Leatherwood should be at the top of their board. That would be a great step toward reestablishing balance in the offense and take pressure off the quarterback of the future.
Keep the Defense as Intact as Possible
There's no doubt the Steelers offense needs work, but if it were possible for Pittsburgh to just bring back the whole defense from last season they would do it.
That's not possible. There simply isn't enough money to go around so the Steelers will have to rely on their own player development to fill in some gaps. For instance, Bud Dupree's market might be too rich for the Steelers, so second-year player Alex Highsmith is going to need to step up.
There are a lot of pieces set to leave beyond Dupree, though. And even more players who could be cap casualties.
Dupree is joined by Avery Williamson, Mike Hilton, Tyson Alualu, Cameron Sutton and Robert Spillane as players who each played an important role in a defense that finished second in defensive efficiency.
Joe Haden and Vince Williams are prime candidates to be cut. The Steelers should avoid that if they can, though, as bringing back as many pieces from last season's defense as possible leads to them remaining relevant.
Pittsburgh is a franchise that has long prided itself on having an elite defense. Keeping that unit together while reforming the offense to a post-Roethlisberger world is the quickest path to the team remaining a relevant player in the AFC North and beyond.