Free-Agent Contracts Steelers Must Consider Before Training Camp

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistJuly 28, 2021

Free-Agent Contracts Steelers Must Consider Before Training Camp

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    For a team coming off a 12-win season and a deep roster with star players, the optimism around the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into 2021 feels surprisingly low. 

    Some of the concerns are for things out of Pittsburgh's control. Playing in the same division as the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns is a daunting task for anyone. The AFC North was the only division in the NFL that had three playoff teams last season. 

    One major question mark is what Ben Roethlisberger is going to look like at 39 years old. He had a good statistical season in 2020 with 3,803 yards, 33 touchdowns and a 65.6 completion percentage, but the stretch run showed a lot of cracks in the foundation. 

    Roethlisberger threw for 2,037 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions over his final seven games, including the 48-37 loss to the Browns in the AFC Wild Card Round. 

    After starting last season with 11 straight wins, the Steelers lost five of their final six games. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season in 14 years as Pittsburgh's head coach. 

    Alabama running back Najee Harris was the team's top draft pick to ease some of the burden on Roethlisberger, but there are other areas the front office could still address with training camp practices underway. 

Breakdown

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Since it seems like Roethlisberger's status as the starting quarterback is safe, the offensive line is going to be the biggest focus for the Steelers throughout the preseason. 

    Even though Harris was Pittsburgh's top draft pick, he doesn't really solve the problems the team had running the ball. 

    Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus ranked the Steelers offensive line as the 17th-best unit in the NFL last season, though that was propped up because of how quickly Roethlisberger got rid of the ball (2.17 seconds on average).

    According to Linsey, Pittsburgh's run-blocking unit was the second-worst in the league and Alejandro Villanueva had the highest run-blocking grade on the team (60.9). 

    Villanueva left the Steelers to sign with the Ravens as a free agent. Chukwuma Okorafor, who played right tackle last season, moved over to the left side during the team's first practice Tuesday. 

    Trai Turner was acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Chargers during the offseason to provide depth at guard after David DeCastro was released. Rookie Kendrick Green, the Steelers' third-round draft pick, has experience at center and guard from his time at Illinois. 

OT Mitchell Schwartz

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Among the free agents still available, Mitchell Schwartz might have the highest risk-reward probability in the group. 

    Schwartz was a critical player for the Kansas City Chiefs during their playoff run two years ago that culminated in a 31-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. He allowed just one pressure in 142 pass-blocking snaps at right tackle. 

    From 2012-19, Schwartz was one of the most durable players in the NFL. He started all 128 regular-season games during that span and had just five games in which he didn't play every offensive snap. 

    A back injury cut Schwartz's 2020 season short after just six games. The 32-year-old had surgery to repair the issue in February, but the Chiefs decided to move on when they released him in March. 

    Even though a back injury for a player at Schwartz's age is a concern, the Steelers are potentially looking to enter this season with Zach Banner as their starting right tackle. The 27-year-old is coming back from a torn ACL suffered in the 2020 season opener and has missed 25 games combined over the past three seasons. 

    Schwartz would probably be the Steelers' best offensive lineman right now if he walked onto the practice field today. 

OT Russell Okung

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    There was some chatter early in the offseason that the Steelers could pursue Okung.

    ESPN's Bill Barnwell wrote in May he was "stunned" no team had signed the 32-year-old "given that he's the last useful left tackle standing on the open market in a league where a handful of competitive teams still need to lock down their quarterback's blindside."

    Barnwell predicted the Steelers would sign Okung to a one-year, $6.5 million contract. The two-time Pro Bowler caught wind of that prediction and tweeted that Pittsburgh "cannot afford me."

    Okung added he will only be paid in Bitcoin. His strategy hasn't worked to this point, as no teams have met whatever his potential asking price is and training camps are underway across the NFL. 

    Like Schwartz, Okung is another high risk-reward player because of his injury history. The Oklahoma State alum has only appeared in 13 games over the past two seasons combined. 

    Given how many analysts have pegged Okung and the Steelers as a potential fit, it just makes too much sense not to happen. 

C Austin Reiter

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    If the Steelers want to look for another area on the offensive line to upgrade aside from the tackle positions, center is one spot they could target. 

    J.C. Hassenauer went from being undrafted in 2018 and playing in the Alliance of American Football in 2019 to appearing in 15 games for the Steelers last season. He did show some promise with zero sacks allowed and five penalties committed in 303 pass-blocking snaps.  

    One potential option to at least give the Steelers more depth at center is Austin Reiter. The 29-year-old spent the past three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, but the team decided not to offer him a new contract this offseason. 

    According to Pro Football Focus, Reiter didn't allow a sack in 678 pass-blocking snaps from Week 1 last season through the AFC Championship Game. 

    Hassenauer might be a better long-term development option for the Steelers, but his limited experience doesn't really fit where this franchise is at heading into 2021. 

    Pittsburgh's roster is all-in to win this season with Roethlisberger at quarterback. He has proved capable of getting rid of the ball quickly, but at some point there needs to be better protection in order to give him a chance to at least look down the field. 

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