Joe Kuzma’s Steelers 2021 offensive offseason wish list

We’ve come to that time of the year when our team’s football season is over and we start fantasizing about how they can improve for the next season.

Change is always in the air within the business of football. Players who were drafted by the team four years ago could become free agents in March. Other players added over the years will have contract negotiations or be released. Others may also retire.

In a perfect world I would get my way with everything below. However, the world is far from perfect so the Pittsburgh Steelers will likely have a huge turnover in what their team looks like in 2021 versus last season.

Since I’m not in charge all I can do is speculate on what those changes could look like in the weeks ahead.

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I’m not panicking as much as others. I feel the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger are still a fine fit, at least for more season, if not two.

If the team thinks differently, I feel we’ve seen enough from Mason Rudolph to give him the reigns for a season to see what he’s capable of. In a contract year, Rudolph could increase his value – either way, I believe the Steelers must offer him a contract extension.

Devlin Hodges, aka “Duck”, will be back this time as the third quarterback. He could compete with a draft pick, but I don’t see the Steelers aiming high for a passer in this draft with Ben or Rudolph as options. A lower round pick could supplement a training camp battle, should they not bring in a veteran as insurance if Rudolph becomes the starter on paper.

There’s no reason to retain Joshua Dobbs and his veteran status might bump his cost up, even at a minimum, to where that’s not feasible for the Steelers. If money isn’t an issue, he could be the one to compete with Rudolph on a low-risk deal.

Again, this is all predicated on Roethlisberger’s return for 2021.

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Running Backs

I believe the Steelers will add to this list either via draft or with a veteran free agent signing (such as a DeAngelo Williams or Stevan Ridley type).

Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland could be an intriguing committee, although that’s not Mike Tomlin’s style. James Conner could be a return candidate, but injuries and salary cap concerns elsewhere make his future with the Steelers in doubt.

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Wide Receivers

JuJu Smith-Schuster is this generations’ Hines Ward: always has fun playing while making tough chain-moving catches and pulverizing opponents.

After starting out hot in the league, flashing WR1 numbers, his last two seasons have been lukewarm stats-wise. What teams could offer him is unknown – which could price him out of Pittsburgh. (Especially so, given the potential salary cap issues that Pittsburgh could be facing.)

That’s okay given the others left on the roster: Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington all form a great trio. There’s no doubt the Steelers will look for another addition, likely in the draft, as well as some veteran competition for Ray-Ray McCloud who has flashed some potential on offense but factors in as a chief special teams contributor.

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Tight Ends

One of either Vance McDonald or Eric Ebron will be gone, given the cap savings the team may find themselves needing.

I’m higher on keeping Kevin Rader, who showed he can be a blocking tight end in the NFL at the end of the season. He could bump Zach Gentry off of the roster, who hasn’t had a chance to build any momentum and ended the year on IR.

With draft capital needed elsewhere, it’s more likely the team tries to keep McDonald cheaper or brings in a lesser-known entity – potentially a cut from elsewhere or undrafted player – to fill another spot. (Think of a Xavier Grimble type.)

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Offensive Line

Here’s where the Steelers need to start investing again as they did a decade ago when they added the now aging likes of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro to the roster. (As well as Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum around the same time period of 2-3 years.)

Personally, I don’t have an issue with Pouncey returning – but I do see the team using picks to find his eventual heir or an offensive tackle in the NFL Draft. Pouncey made a mistake in the Wild Card game, and that isn’t to define his overall play.

The Steelers do two things: they don’t change coaches or centers often. Mike Webster, Dermonti Dawson and Maurkice Pouncey represent almost every starting center snap since the 70’s, barring Jeff Hartings (who was also a Pro Bowler) and a few other spot starters due to injury and lack of talent at the position.

We all know Pouncey is planning to step aside when Ben Roethlisberger does – and seeing that Maurkice has already been in the league ten seasons, it might be prudent to continue the Steelers tradition of anchoring the offensive line with All-Pro, Hall of Fame talent in the middle of their line.

Alejandro Villanueva is set to be a free agent – and I honestly believe that he may simply walk away from the game. If not, I don’t believe the Steelers are looking to bring him back regardless.

Zach Banner, Week 1’s starting right tackle, will also be a free agent. His tweet about a great exit interview sounds optimistic about a return. His replacement, Chukwuma Okorafor, will enter the final year of his rookie contract in 2021. He is currently the only tackle with experience under contract.

Jerald Hawkins, who was traded two seasons ago and re-signed off of the Texans practice squad for depth is a free agent as well.

Matt Feiler, at left guard, could also be headed for free agency. The Steelers drafted Kevin Dotson last season, and he impressed filling in at both guard positions. My feeling is he kicks over to left guard in place of Feiler, with Banner and Okorafor competing for one or both tackle positions.

Feiler, who played well at right tackle in 2019, could be brought back for depth – but as previously being a starter and the Steelers hamstrung by the cap, I see the team spending several draft picks on offensive linemen this offseason in order to bolster the offense for years to come… and at a lower price than signing some veterans.

In fact, offensive line is currently my top and only priority in the NFL Draft for Pittsburgh.

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