Steelers gear up for spring
The National Football League’s free agency period begins at 4 p.m. on Wednesday. However, Pittsburgh Steelers fans shouldn’t get their hopes up too high that general manager Kevin Colbert will pull off any major free agent signings in the upcoming weeks.
During his 14 years as general manager, Colbert has steered clear of diving deep into the high-priced free agent market, preferring to stock the roster through the college draft.
When Colbert does sign free agents, they have primarily been older players who have been slowed by injuries and have diminished market value. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. By far, Colbert’s most successful signings were James Farrior, Ryan Clark and Jeff Hartings.
Defensively, the Steelers need upgrades at inside linebacker and in the secondary. The wide receiver spots need to be addressed.
Last year’s “big” signings were inside linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Morgan Burnett. Bostic was basically a stopgap following the tragic injury to Ryan Shazier.
Burnett was slowed from the stop of training camp last July through the early part of the season. The 29-year old saw action in 11 games, starting in two. Burnett was not happy with being used in the team’s dime defensive package playing what was essentially a linebacker position. Burnett has requested to either be traded or released. There are two years remaining on Burnett’s deal. It would be great if Colbert could find a team to take Burnett off his hands and off the financial books.
It was imperative that left offensive guard Ramon Foster was re-signed. A stalwart on the offensive line, Foster signed a two-year deal worth $8.25 million. Center Maurkice Pouncey, who would have been a free agent at the end of the 2019 season, signed a contract extension through the 2021 season. Reportedly, the contract is a three-year, $29 million deal.
Backup defensive end Tyson Alualu inked a two-year extension on February 22. Alualu provides valuable depth behind Stephon Tuitt at right defensive end.
Backup linebackers L.J. Fort and Anthony Chickillo have shown the ability to be on the field. Fort backs up Bostic, while Chickillo spells Bud Dupree. Punter Jordan Berry averaged 43.7 yards per punt with 28 of them being downed inside the 20-yard line.
Tight end Jesse James is serviceable. He does have good hands for the most part, and his blocking has improved. Paired with veteran Vance McDonald, they give Ben Roethlisberger a good safety valve when the wide receivers are covered.
Right cornerback Coty Sensabaugh just keeps doing his job. Admittedly, the Steelers are weak in the secondary and an upgrade could happen.
Wide receiver Eli Rogers worked his way back from an ACL injury in the playoff loss to Jacksonville a year ago. He spent most of the 2018 rehabbing, making it back to start the final three games.
LET THEM GO
Right offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert has one more year left on his contract. However, it won’t be a surprise if Gilbert is released by the end of the week. Gilbert has only played in 12 of the last 32 regular-season games.
Second-teamers left defensive end L.T. Walton and nose guard Daniel McCullers should be easy to replace. McCullers, who has tremendous potential, has just that, “potential”. The Steelers have been waiting and waiting for that potential to turn into production, and it hasn’t.
A nose tackle has to be able to clog the middle and McCullers hasn’t done that on a consistent basis. Walton just hasn’t been a factor in his four years in Pittsburgh. It’s time for them to go.
Wide receiver Justin Hunter has been a disappointment. The 34th overall pick in the 2013 draft by Tennessee, Hunter has also worn the jerseys of the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills. At best, he is a fifth (more likely sixth receiver). Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey has seen most of his playing time on special teams. He had a better year in 2017 than he did in 2018. By far, his best years are behind him.
Defensive back Nat Berke was placed on injured reserve in October. He wasn’t much of a factor. Running back Stevan Ridley causes fans to hold their breath every time he touches the ball. A frequent fumbler, there isn’t a good reason to keep him around.
The free agent signings, or non-signings, will have a direct effect on the areas that the Steelers address via the draft. The NFL draft is April 25-27 in Nashville.