PITTSBURGH — Every offseason seems to form its own identity for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Two years ago, the Steelers were trying to go from good to great by adding a few pieces in free agency and locking up key linemen. Last year, the team for once had some salary-cap space, which it used to bet big on Antonio Brown and franchise tag Le’Veon Bell.
This year, the roster picture is relatively clear. Bell is the priority free agent, and though a few positional needs exist on defense, the team won’t be pressured into any major decisions in free agency or otherwise.
The offseason kicks off in earnest now. The Super Bowl is nearly two weeks in the rearview, the NFL combine is two weeks away, and the Steelers are formulating their game plan for the next six months.
To save you some time, here’s a step-by-step look at that process.
Franchise tag looms large: Tuesday is the first day teams are permitted to use a franchise or transition tag on a player. That window closes March 6. If the Steelers can’t work out a long-term contract with Bell by the end of the month, tagging him at $14.5 million and keeping him out of free agency would be a sound move. But both parties would prefer to avoid that, after last year got messy.
Free-agency plans loosely set around NFL combine: The combine kicks off Feb. 27, at which time the Steelers will likely talk with in-house free agents while vetting hundreds of prospects. This could be a light lift, since Bell’s contract is the only pressing decision left. Consider the rest of the free-agent lineup:
OT Chris Hubbard: After acquitting himself well in 10 starts last season, he’ll get paid elsewhere. And the Steelers know it.
OLB Arthur Moats: Still a good backup pass-rusher and special-teamer, but he might be a veteran minimum guy at this point.
WR Justin Hunter: Could return on an affordable one-year deal but didn’t get much of a look in a crowded receiver room.
DT Dan McCullers: Probably time to move on.
RB Fitz Toussaint: A good depth tailback but not a must-sign.
Restricted free agents: OLB Anthony Chickillo, K Chris Boswell, WR Eli Rogers: All three might be worth late-round tenders, which will come in just below $2 million once the numbers are announced later this month.
Early March moves: The three-day window to negotiate with unrestricted free agents begins March 12, and contracts can be finalized starting at 4 p.m. ET on March 14. As a build-through-the-draft team, the Steelers typically don’t spend a whole lot in the first week. But they know how close they are to a Super Bowl after four straight playoff appearances, so a mildly aggressive move or two — key word: mildly — wouldn’t shock. If the Steelers plan to target an inside linebacker such as NaVorro Bowman, those intentions might start to crystallize as the calendar strikes March.
Mid-March pay day: Several prominent Steelers have roster bonuses due on March 16, the third day of the league’s new year, including Antonio Brown ($6 million), Ben Roethlisberger ($5 million), left tackle Alejandro Villanueva ($3 million) and cornerback Joe Haden ($1 million). Don’t be surprised if all four get their payments, unless the team decides to rework a deal. Haden, for example, played well last season and should be back but carries an $11.6 million cap hit.
Contract decisions for cap purposes: The Steelers can save nearly $14 million in cap space by releasing a handful of veterans, most of whom have played a pivotal role on the field and in the locker room the past few years. The team wouldn’t move on from everyone and might keep most of them. But here are the primary options:
Safety Mike Mitchell ($5 million cap savings): He’s a candidate to be released, but the team can ask him to rework his deal or take a pay cut. He didn’t make enough splashy plays last season but also was hurt for much of it. Keeping him and drafting a safety would provide depth.
Safety J.J. Wilcox ($3.125 million cap savings): He probably needs a change of scenery. The 26-year-old hitter could find a home elsewhere.
Corner William Gay ($1.75 million cap savings): Gay wants to be back for the final year of his contract. He’s a Mike Tomlin favorite, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he returns. But the team is transitioning to younger cornerbacks, and Gay has probably lost a step.
Safety Robert Golden ($1.475 million cap savings): He’s still a core special-teamer, so he still holds value.
Receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey ($1.2 million cap savings): Becoming one of the best gunners in the league helps his cause.
More restructuring?: The Steelers saved about $13 million in space by using their well-worn cap trick — converting salary to signing bonus — with guard David DeCastro and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers didn’t have to rework much last year but are back to their maneuvering ways. Defensive end Cam Heyward, Villanueva and Brown are among the players with larger contracts that could be redone. Players typically don’t mind this because they get money into their pockets more quickly.
On the draft trail: Tomlin loves the draft process — working out players, talking with coaches, getting to know prospects on a personal level. Expect the head coach to be an active participant in the high-profile (and some low-profile) pro days. The staff and personnel department will disperse on a mission to comb for talent. The Steelers are considered one of the best teams in the NFL at this. Tomlin’s whereabouts — especially if he pops up in SEC country to study inside linebackers — will be telling. The team’s past two first-round picks, cornerback Artie Burns and linebacker T.J. Watt, spent significant time with Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert based around a campus workout.
Offseason workouts, bargain-bin shopping: Every year, good veteran players are available in the spring or early summer, ready to produce under a reasonable one- or two-year deal. The Steelers have had success tapping into this pool with the likes of DeAngelo Williams, Tyson Alualu and Sensabaugh. Expect Pittsburgh to summon reinforcements, possibly before offseason workouts in late April.
What to do with Bud Dupree?: The Steelers will have until early May to decide whether to apply a fifth-year option on the outside linebacker or let him enter free agency in 2019. Dupree is better than Jarvis Jones, who fizzled out after the team declined his option, but not at the level of Ryan Shazier, whose option was an easy call. The team picks up a fifth year only if it feels the player can hold up under a long-term contract. In 2017, Dupree had six sacks while playing through a hurt shoulder and dropping into coverage often. The team needs fewer disappearing acts from him, but he can play. This is a difficult call.
What to do with Big Ben?: The quarterback market is trending to the $27-million-per-year range, which makes Roethlisberger underpaid. His contract averages about $20 million per year and has two years left. Roethlisberger wants to play three more. Does it make sense to do this now? Bet on the Steelers waiting a bit and handling Bell first, but Roethlisberger will get paid eventually.