Which of their own impending free agents should the Steelers bring back?
With the NFL free agency period set to be underway within the next month, it’s time to start digging into the list of Pittsburgh Steelers players who are eligible to become free agents this offseason.
The list isn’t necessarily as long or as glamorous as it was last year, when the Steelers had little cap space to accommodate a number of players who were hitting the market, such as LB Bud Dupree, CB Mike Hilton, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, RB James Conner, OT Matt Feiler, and CB Cameron Sutton.
However, there are a number of highlights on the list, including a few starters as well as key contributors.
Here is my take on which players the Steelers attempt to bring back, which they let go, and others who are stuck somewhere in the middle.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
- OG/C J.C. Hassenauer
- DL Demarcus Christmas
- CB DeMarkus Acy
ERFA’s are players that the Steelers most likely won’t have to battle with other teams over signing. Without getting technical, the team controls their contracts.
That said, there are only three on this year’s list, with Hassenauer topping the names of most likely to return, after starting at center at the end of the season when starting rookie center Kendrick Green was injured.
“JCH” is also versatile, playing guard too, which helps make him valuable to the team long-term, at least while they are sorting out their offensive line rebuild.
Restricted Free Agents
Restricted free agents can be tendered by the Steelers, meaning the have a right to match another team’s offer sheet made to players with this designation.
Furthermore, depending on the tender, the new team which signs the RFA may owe Pittsburgh compensation.
For example, the Steelers may use an original round tender on QB Dwayne Haskins, meaning another team which signs him would owe them a first round draft pick, based on Haskins being originally selected in the first round.
Haskins will almost certainly be back to compete with Mason Rudolph for Ben Roethlisberger’s vacated starting position. If the team uses the tender mentioned above, it would net Haskins a little over $2 million in salary for 2022, a step up from his compensation of $850,000 last season.
I would expect Spillane to return based on a general lack of depth and experience with the Steelers inside linebackers. His 2021 salary was at the minimum for a player of his tenure, $850,000, making him a bargain signing.
While the Steelers have a need for linebackers and special teams players, I’d call Marcus Allen’s return a coinflip, based on his lack of defensive playing time and the potential of having other young players such as Buddy Johnson and Ulysees Gilbert III step into his minimal defensive and special teams snaps.
Unrestricted Free Agents
- CB Joe Haden
- WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
- TE Eric Ebron
- CB Ahkello Witherspoon
- OG Trai Turner
- S Terrell Edmunds
- S Miles Killebrew
- WR James Washington
- QB Joshua Dobbs
- WR Ray-Ray McCloud
- CB Arthur Maulet
- DT Montravius Adams
- OLB Taco Charlton
- OL B.J. Finney
- RB Kalen Ballage
- OT Chukwuma Okorafor
The above list are players the Steelers must come to terms with before the free agency period officially begins, or attempt to re-sign after allowing those players to “test the market” by fielding offers from other teams: either accepting those or returning to take an offer from Pittsburgh.
Headlining the list are a number of starters in the secondary.
Joe Haden turns 33-years-old in April and missed four games last season. I see him as expendable unless he’s willing to take a reduced role, and salary: neither of which I believe the veteran cornerback is willing to do on the onset of free agency. However, he could boomerang back to the team the same way JuJu Smith-Schuster had last season, after failing to find a better situation and/or contract.
Former first round pick Terrell Edmunds is a four-year starter who has improved year-after-year. He pairs nicely with Minkah Fitzpatrick, but the question will be whether he seeks a deal that prices him out of Pittsburgh or not. I’d like to see Edmunds return, but if the Steelers feel they can net a comparable replacement, he may not be back.
Ahkello Witherspoon came on late in the season after being acquired in a trade from the Seattle Seahawks. I believe the Steelers will make he and Edmunds their priority, in order to lockup their defensive backfield. If they can pair Haden with them as a part-timer, much like Will Gay’s final seasons, the defense will be the better for it, as they were when Haden played a similar role to close out the 2021 season.
Sticking with the defense, a number of lower-priority free agents who should all be welcomed back include Arthur Maulet, who flirted as a starting nickel corner in place of Hilton, Montravius Adams, who flourished in short flashes after coming over from the Saints mid-season, and Taco Charlton, a former first-round pick who bounced over to the Steelers and made them easily forget who Melvin Ingram was.
Miles Killebrew is a utility player best suited at special teams. The hybrid linebacker/safety has stuck around with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin over the years and will most certainly return on at least a one-year deal.
JuJu Smith-Schuster presents an interesting challenge, as he loyal in an aspect of coming back to the Steelers on a one-year team-friendly deal in 2021, and also worked his butt off to come back from injured reserve to play in the Wild Card game against the Chiefs.
Whether JuJu does similar in 2022 is anyone’s guess. I can’t imagine his market will be very high following the last few seasons of lower productivity, as well as missing so many games due to injury.
He may find his market devalued and end up back in the Steel City after all… but I wouldn’t count on it, as I believe the team will be prepared to pay one of its receivers this offseason, and that will likely lead to Diontae Johnson receiving an extension instead.
I don’t see the Steelers doing a deal with both in the same year.
That also means bye-bye to James Washington.
Ray-Ray McCloud was impressive enough as a receiver when called upon after JuJu’s injury, but offers the most as a kick and punt returner: he will be back.
Eric Ebron has probably played his last snap in Pittsburgh as well, with the 29-year-old tight end missing nine games in 2021. He was superseded by rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth, and the Steelers also saw that their depth at the position with Zach Gentry and Kevin Rader is more than adequate. (Jace Sternberger was also signed to a futures contract last month, crowding the depth chart even further.)
On the offensive line, RT Chuks Okorafor wasn’t good or bad, and could be brought back. Another team may be willing to pay more than the Steelers, however, and they already know Okorafor’s ceiling – and may not hesitate to upgrade at the position.
OG Trai Turner doesn’t appear to be inline to be brought back. The former Pro Bowl caliber guard struggled at times, and if the Steelers seek out another center, it could mean Kendrick Green moves to guard. With Turner playing on the right, and Kevin Dotson having played on the right in his rookie season as well as in college, Green would best fit back at his college position of left guard, leaving Turner as the odd man out.
B.J. Finney’s injuries have tolled and he may not have a future in the NFL, unless the Steelers prefer to bring a veteran to training camp.
Closing out the final two names on the list, QB Josh Dobbs is likely brought back to at least be a “camp arm” this summer, with a shot at being QB3 should the Steelers stand pat with Mason Rudolph and Haskins with no other additions at the position.
RB Kalen Ballage looked solid in the preseason, but is another in a long line of journeymen running backs who are expendable. If he returns, he will have to fight for a roster spot.