Don’t expect these former Steelers back in the Burgh this season
As the beginning of NFL free agency looms closer, teams are making moves to re-sign or release players, to fit within this year’s salary cap.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are no different, however, new general manager Omar Khan has yet to make any moves with the current roster or its impending free against.
Sitting right at the 2023 salary cap, Khan will need to hit the transaction wire soon in order to free up some money to sign players. In doing so, along with concurrent moves by other front offices, fans have started to speculate on who Pittsburgh could ink to a new deal.
That wish list includes an ill advised thought that the Steelers will bring back any former players who were once in the Steel City, and then left (for one reason or another). While the Steelers broke the taboo mold of re-signing former players years ago, bringing back names such as Bryant McFadden, Will Gay, Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El and even Plaxico Burress, this year’s crop of former players turned free agents presents a different set of challenges that could prevent most of them from returning to the Steel City.
Here’s a list of those former Steelers who are scheduled to become free agents, and why I feel they won’t be calling Pittsburgh home again in 2023.
Anyone who watched the Super Bowl pointed at the screen and said “I know that guy!”
Hargrave, a 2016 third round pick by the Steelers, signed a three-year, $39 million deal in 2020 with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2021 with seven sacks, then tied for second on the team with a career-high 11 sacks in 2022.
The Eagles have enough cap concerns to think Hargrave could hit the market. However, the Steelers would be hard-pressed to be able to afford the kind of deal their former player is likely to fetch elsewhere.
JuJu appears to be happy catching passes from league MVP Patrick Mahomes and hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy.
We’ll wait and see if he returns to the Chiefs for another season – but I don’t see any path to him returning to the Steelers.
That’s not to say there was a bad fit with Pittsburgh. In fact, JuJu was voted the team’s MVP in 2018. He’s beloved in the Burgh, and even reciprocated that love by signing a team-friendly deal in 2021, then returning from IR to play against KC in the playoffs.
The factor that makes JuJu a longshot is that he will likely remain where he is. He signed with Kansas City without knowing Pittsburgh’s future post Ben Roethlisberger: again, no one can fault that.
Another detriment to bringing Smith-Schuster back is the current wide receiver room, which features Diontae Johnson and George Pickens. Even if JuJu is WR3, there may not be enough balls coming his way as there are many mouths to feed in the Steelers offense – one they’re likely adding to with the returning 2022 fourth round pick Calvin Austin and perhaps other transactions to come.
Remember when Jesse caught it?
That’s about the best memory we have of James, who left the Steelers to sign a lucrative deal with the Detroit Lions in 2019. In two seasons he would appear in 32 games, but fail to combine for as many receptions or yards as he did in his final season with the Steelers.
James would bounce to the Chicago Bears in 2021 and the Cleveland Browns last season. He has seven receptions in those last two seasons, having appeared in only 16 games between the two teams.
James also had some negative things to say about the Steelers on his way out, and with Pat Freiermuth and Connor Heyward already entrenched on the roster (and perhaps Zach Gentry re-signing with the team) there’s no space for an average tight end on Pittsburgh’s depth chart.
Ingram was signed in 2021 as a veteran edge rusher coming off of injuries after being a Pro Bowl level star with the Chargers. The hope was the then 32-year-old would be a nice rotational piece alongside T.J. Watt and rising young star Alex Highsmith.
He was also added to the roster to provide a boost in training camp, but instead of making an impact, Ingram complained about his reduced playing time and was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The now 33-year-old Ingram, who turns 34 next month, appeared in all 17 games for the Miami Dolphins last season, totaling six sacks: those were the most Ingram had since registering seven sacks in 2019.
I highly doubt he has any interest in returning to a worse (in terms of playing time) situation in Pittsburgh in 2023. Turning one year older also doesn’t help boost his case to sign with any team, any time soon.
After noting the above with Ingram, would Dupree be willing to take a reduction in playing time and pay to become a backup in Pittsburgh? That’s my biggest doubt with the 30-year-old linebacker who is expected to be released by the Tennessee Titans before free agency begins.
A reunion with the Steelers would make sense, as the team could use a solid edge rusher to rotate with or spell Watt and Highsmith. The questions about Dupree’s reliability (he’s missed six games in each of the last two seasons) plus his previous high-dollar contract, could see him searching for a team deep into the summer.
If that’s not the case, I don’t see the Steelers as potential suitors.
Signed to be a plug-and-play replacement for David DeCastro in 2021, Turner failed to live up to his previous Pro Bowl caliber play that season. He’s once again a free agent in 2023,
However, the Steelers are already set at right guard with James Daniels, and its tough to think the 29-year-old can slide over to the left side and provide an improvement at this stage over Kevin Dotson.
The 31-year-old receiver made headlines by signing with the Vegas Vipers of the XFL this spring. Currently, Bryant has five receptions for 34 yards.
While this may have excited some fans into thinking Bryant could have a career resurgence with the Steelers, the way he left wasn’t exactly a door left open for his return. Bryant was suspended numerous times for off-field behavior, namely failing drug tests. He would miss the entire 2016 season due to those problems before being traded to the Raiders in 2018 for a third-round pick.
Being 31-years-old doesn’t help either, as this is an age where most NFL receivers drop off – and retire.
He was also cut by a Canadian Football League team (Edmonton Elks) before their training camp began last season, which doesn’t inspire confidence in his reliability.
For all intents and purposes, despite a change to how the currently NFL penalizes (or doesn’t penalize) marijuana use, Bryant’s ship has sailed not only with Pittsburgh, but the league as a whole.
Hubbard parlayed spot duty with the Steelers into a nice contract with the Cleveland Browns. However, the guard/center turned tackle failed to make the impact that the Browns expected, and with the Steelers looking toward the future, Hubbard would be no more than a backup in Pittsburgh.
He may search for a better opportunity elsewhere, or just return to the Browns instead.
Matakevich was signed away as a special teams ace with the Buffalo Bills several seasons ago.
His higher priced contract as a special teamer (he was paid more than Derek Watt over the last three seasons) plus knowing his lack of fit with the Steelers defensive schemes if called upon to play inside linebacker, make Matakevich an unlikely offseason signing.
The former 2016 first round pick of the Steelers is still bouncing around the NFL.
After being sidelined in 2020 entirely, he spent one season in Chicago and last season in Seattle.
At this point, Burns is still a young 27-year-old with seven years of NFL experience: he’d be a great backup for someone, but that ship has sailed in Pittsburgh.
Once upon a time this former Steelers seventh round draft pick was a hot topic of debate, as it was argued whether the Steelers should sign Beachum or Ramon Foster, implying the team couldn’t bring back both in 2016.
Beachum left for a season with the Jacksonville Jaguars before landing with the New York Jets and most recently, the Arizona Cardinals.
Beachum turns 34 in June, so despite being a great humanitarian who is seemingly loved no matter where he lands, his playing days could be numbered. A player of his age usually isn’t considered to be an “upgrade” no matter who he may be viewed as replacing – which would also be a short-term prospect.