The Pittsburgh Steelers had a tale of two seasons.
After going undefeated through the first 11 games, they looked like strong contenders for the Super Bowl.
They then proceeded to go 1-5, culminating in a loss to the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
On paper, Pittsburgh still has an excellent team for next season.
There is no guarantee Ben Roethlisberger returns, but he has a plethora of weapons to work with should he play in 2021.
The Steelers also still have one of the most formidable defensive units in the league.
Unfortunately, with their cap dilemma, it will be difficult to retain all of their pending free agents.
A critical offseason ahead for the Steelers, who currently carry close to ~$204M in cap charges.
Ben Roethlisberger's cap number is $41M.25M alone.
Key FA include Bud Dupree, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Alejandro Villanueva, James Conner, Mike Hilton, Tyson Alualu and more.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 11, 2021
But with these moves, the Steelers can continue to contend in the fierce AFC North.
1. Draft An Offensive Lineman
One of the most important moves for the Steelers to make this offseason is to address their offensive line.
While they only conceded 13 sacks, that was because of how quickly Roethlisberger got rid of the ball.
Roethlisberger held on to the ball an average of just 2.3 seconds per pass attempt, the fastest time in the league.
He also averaged 7.1 intended air yards per pass attempt, one of the shallowest marks amongst eligible quarterbacks.
Simply put, Roethlisberger was getting the ball out fast and throwing short, mitigating any pressure the line might allow.
However, the Steelers’ resorted to this dink-and-dunk offense because of their inability to run block.
According to PFF, not one of the Steeler’s offensive lineman graded better than average as a run blocker.
As a result, the offense mustered only 1,351 rushing yards on 3.6 yards per carry, both of which were dead last in the NFL.
Art Rooney II on #Steelers running game: It's something we need to address. You can't finish 32nd in the league in rushing and expect to have a successful season.
— Bob Labriola (@BobLabriola) January 28, 2021
And with Alejandro Villanueva unlikely to return to the team, the Steelers are in dire need of offensive linemen.
Through the draft, though, Steelers can solve many of their issues in one fell swoop.
Should the front office choose this route, they can take one of the many talented prospects available.
Realistic candidates the Steelers could select in the first two rounds include Texas’ Sam Cosmi, Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood, or Tennessee’s Trey Smith.
2. Restructure Ben Roethlisberger’s Contract
If the Steeler’s are to have any cap flexibility next season, they will have to restructure Roethlisberger’s contract.
He is on the books for $41.2 million, an unfathomable figure for a declining 38-year old quarterback.
Brooke Pryor of ESPN detailed the specifics of this contract and what the Steelers could do to free up money.
“To achieve cap relief and give Roethlisberger at least one more season to end on his own terms, the Steelers could ask the quarterback to take a pay cut in the final year of his contract. The Steelers have already prorated $22,250,000 of his contract, leaving $19 million — $4 million in base salary and a $15 million roster bonus — to work within a pay cut or restructure. The likelier option is an extension and restructure that spreads some of the cap hit into the 2022 season.”
Granted, this is only relevant if Roethlisberger decides to take one more crack at a Super Bowl run.
Though he has contemplated retirement for several years now, he recently indicated that he wants to return for at least one more season.
Luckily for the Steelers, he is also open to taking the necessary measures to alleviate the team’s financial burden.
#Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger told @EdBouchette that he agrees with owner Art Rooney II and is willing to restructure his contract to be back with the team. "I don't care bout my pay at all this year," Roethlisberger said.
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 28, 2021
Having their locker room leader on a reduced contract is the surest way for the Steelers to maintain their status as AFC contenders for at least one more year.
3. Extend TJ Watt
The last crucial order of business for the Steelers’ offseason is to lock up their best defender.
Since his debut in 2017, TJ Watt has been one of the most dominant pass rushers to suit up.
His sacks numbers have increased every year he has been in the league, peaking at a career-best 15 this year.
For his efforts, Watt has earned three Pro Bowl nominations and back-to-back first-team All-Pro honors.
The Steelers wisely picked up his fifth-year option last offseason, paying him just over $10 million.
The #Steelers have exercised the 2021 fifth-year option on pass-rusher TJ Watt. Another no brainer.
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) April 28, 2020
This number is a massive discount relative to what he would expect to command on the open market.
Spotrac estimates his value to be worth up to $25 million, a figure in line with the contracts of the premier pass rushers of the league.
If the Steelers fail to resign Watt this offseason, there is a chance that number increases.
Elite sack artists in their prime rarely ever become free agents, and it would be foolish for the Steelers to let their homegrown star slip away.