With all of the talk about who is coming and who is going before the rest of the 2020 NFL season is close to completion, I started thinking about how the Steelers have been rare team which has made amends with former employees, bringing them back for a second term (and then some).
Among some of the famous names who left the Steel City only to grace us with their presence again later on in their career include names such as William Gay, Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, Plaxico Burress, Matt Spaeth, Max Starks, Bryant McFadden, Will Allen, Doug Legursky, and maybe most famously and recent, James Harrison.
That’s hardly a comprehensive list of persons that have been in, out, and back in with the organization, but it’s a good indication that if both parties are able and willing, they’ll do business.
Which leads me to the 2020 offseason. Mike Tomlin has already indicated that there could be some coaching changes and for what it’s worth, there’s also some light speculation about players who could become available as well.
While this is all speculation and throwing darts at boards, I feel these three people would be solid re-additions to the Steelers for next season. (I’ll also explain why.)
Also keep in mind the theme of this article is "could" bring back! (It doesn't mean they can or will!)
James is an intriguing name to add to this list, because he’s currently unavailable. However, with the Steelers recent woes with tight end depth, his name would make perfect sense to toss into the hat if the Lions were to cut ties with him.
“If” being the keyword: the Steelers allowed James to walk in free agency, feeling comfortable with Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble as their top options, with rookie Zach Gentry as their third tight end. When McDonald and Grimble each went down with injuries, it was time for the team to look outside for help, trading with the Seahawks for Nick Vannett.
With Vannett scheduled to hit free agency, they’re going to need help. James was never seen as the top option, but gave the team a secure second tight end who played half or more of most games, even when not technically “starting” in them.
Another bug floating around is that McDonald’s contract could become an issue where the team needs to release him to free up cap space in order to make other moves, notably keeping Bud Dupree (also set to hit free agency this offseason).
That would leave another huge hole at an already fragile position.
But would the Lions move on from James?
That’s a hot question best suited for the following offseason where James carries a lighter dead cap cost: nearly half of the $8.2m in dead space he’d leave the Lions if they released him in 2020.
Yet, that’s some cash Jesse would still pocket and help a cash-strapped Steelers bring him back home. With T.J. Hockenson the top option in Detroit, and Logan Thomas seeing ample playing time, James could be expendable.
While he never lit the Steelers on fire with big receiving numbers, his production in Detroit dipped to career-lows as a starter with only 16 receptions, 142 receiving yards and zero touchdowns.
That means James may be more amicable to a change in scenery as well as the Lions this offseason.
Bell didn’t exactly part ways with the Steelers the way everyone would’ve liked, but he has made no bones about being friendly with team and his former teammates in recent weeks.
Combine that with a few other factors, such as his current head coach, the Jets’ Adam Gase, giving anything but a vote of confidence for Bell’s return in 2020, along with Bell also seeing lower production and finding out his market wasn’t as inflated as he had thought during free agency, and we could see a situation where the door for Le’Veon’s return might be propped open in Pittsburgh.
Another consideration in this scenario, of course, is that the Jets release Bell: he’s currently under contract for three more seasons and carries a whopping $17m worth of dead cap space if he were let go.
Like James, his likely “out” comes in 2021’s offseason with only $4m in dead cap remaining on his contract.
However, stranger things have happened: such as a rumor that the Jets had Bell on the trading block near the trade deadline and that the Steelers actually inquired about his availability. Years ago, Mike Wallace signed a big deal in Miami and was traded away to the Minnesota Vikings with a swap of day three draft picks. (The Vikings sent a fifth rounder over to Miami in exchange for Wallace and a seventh round pick.)
However, that was only $6.6m of dead cap space for the Dolphins to eat. The Jets would have to soak up twice that much to be rid of Bell and the Steelers presumably don’t have the room to absorb the $13m or so it would take to have the running back return to town.
But if push came to shove, I could see the two sides making amends. Bell had already admitted he and his agent could’ve handled things better and from an outsider’s perspective, that admission came off as a more mature player who was willing to say sorry.
With James Conner entering a contract year while having difficulty remaining healthy, the Steelers might be looking to improve their depth at the position. Would they pull the trigger on bringing Bell back?
Struggling with injuries prior to being traded to Arizona last season, Gilbert will become a free agent in 2020 and could be brought back on a “prove it” style deal by the team who drafted him in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
A solid right tackle who never got the league-wide recognition he deserved, Gilbert could help a Steelers offensive line that struggled in 2019, and that might be looking at replacements in 2020. There’s speculation that the team could part ways with starting RG Ramon Foster as a cap savings measure, and his backup, B.J. Finney, will likely fetch a solid contract the Steelers won’t be able to match when he hits free agency this offseason.
I haven’t lost my mind: those are both guards and not tackles… that’s why it might behoove the Steelers to shift Matt Feiler, a guard converted to playing right tackle, back over to guard. This would open up a position battle between the younger, inexperienced Chukwarma Okorafor and a veteran such as Gilbert. The result would be a win-win for the Steelers if either panned out, and if both were playing their best football, it would provide the team with depth.
Of course, I shouldn’t leave everyone’s favorite eligible tackle out of this conversation either: Zach Banner could also compete for a starting role, but seeing as Okorafor was already given the nod as a starter over Banner, I’d say the former might edge the latter if it came down to it.
Again, it might be worth the team to pursue this move so long as it makes sense for all parties involved.
Perhaps the most controversial name on this list, the former Steelers offensive coordinator is readily available: but is he willing to leave his post as part of the Sirius XM NFL Radio morning broadcast team?
That’s only one question of many, as a returning Ben Roethlisberger might have something to say about Haley’s return, as he likely had much to do with his exit from the team too. Haley wasn’t technically fired, but his contract wasn’t renewed, despite the record numbers Big Ben and the Steelers offense put up during his tenure as the OC.
That pales to what has transpired with the Steelers as of late. Many critics are pointing fingers at current OC Randy Fichtner for the offense’s woes this season, where no one could score and the quarterback play was problematic without Roethlisberger under center. Of course, when Big Ben had the reins a year prior, the Steelers had the best red zone offense in the league.
This year they had the worst.
How much of that is talent, and how much is coaching, can only be determined by those within the front office. However, there’s no arguing the success the Steelers offense had with Haley calling the shots and Fichtner focused on only the quarterbacks as a position coach.
Would they consider such a controversial move? And how might the players react?
Stranger things have happened. But Haley’s fingerprints on the offense undeniably rose the Steelers to heights never seen before. Perhaps a return to his philosophies might be something the team could consider?
(And don’t forget, the keyword of this article is “could”!! Don’t shoot the speculator!)