PITTSBURGH -- After missing the postseason for the second consecutive year, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert will begin to make personnel decisions that will shape the team’s future.
The Steelers flourished on defense in 2019 but had major struggles on offense. To bounce back, the organization has some glaring holes to fill.
Pittsburgh, though, is primed to enter the 2020 season without much salary-cap space, thanks to the $33.5 million hit that comes with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s contract. It also bears mentioning that Colbert’s contract is set to expire after the 2020 NFL draft, and determining his future with the organization is paramount this offseason. In his 20th season as general manager, Colbert pulled off a risky trade to acquire Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick for a first-round pick. With all that in mind, here are the top three items on the Steelers’ offseason to-do list:
Keep linebacker Bud Dupree
Tomlin was clear in his end-of-season news conference: Retaining Dupree is at the very top of his to-do list this offseason.
“Make no mistake,” Tomlin said. “Bud Dupree is a priority for us.”
It’s no mystery why. Playing out his fifth-year option, the 2015 first-round pick led the Steelers with 16 tackles for loss and had a career-high 11.5 sacks. As a tandem with T.J. Watt, Dupree laid the foundation for the Steelers’ pass rush of the future. The two combined for 26 sacks, 12 forced fumbles and 42.5 tackles for loss.
It’s no wonder Watt wants his teammate back.
“Hell, yeah,” Watt said. “If anyone asks me that, it’s way above my pay grade, but if anybody asks me that, I’ll 100 percent advocate for Bud Dupree.
“This defense was a lot of fun to be a part of. ... I hope we can keep it as similar as possible for next year.”
If the salary cap rises to the expected $200 million, the Steelers are projected to have $2.4 million in effective cap space for the 2020 season, according to Over the Cap. The most cost-efficient way to keep Dupree would be to move on from some expensive veterans and apply either a franchise or a transition tag. Per OTC’s estimates, that would cost the Steelers $16.2 million or $14 million in 2020.
Fully healthy after dealing with injuries to his shoulder and groin earlier in his career, Dupree put together his best professional season and made himself an indispensable part of the Steelers’ defense. In doing so, he put himself in position to make a lot of money on the open market. Dupree made it clear that he wants to stay in Pittsburgh, but he also understands the business of the NFL.
“You always want to finish what you start,” Dupree said after a 28-10 loss to the Ravens in Week 17. “That lets you know you had a good career. ... But at the end of the day, the new NFL, it’s business. Lot of stuff going on our team, got a lot of stuff that we need to fit on this team, too.”
If the Steelers are wise, they’ll make it their business to fit Dupree into their future plans.
Move on from expensive veterans
One of the most difficult decisions any team faces is deciding when to release veteran players who have been instrumental to building the franchise and maintaining the locker room culture. After 11 seasons with the Steelers, left guard Ramon Foster’s time with the organization could be up. Foster has 156 starts, including 11 in the postseason, since he joined the organization as an undrafted free agent in 2009, and he has been a full-time starter since midway through the 2010 season. Foster, who turns 34 next week, has one year left on his contract, and cutting him would save $4 million in cap space. That money could go to Dupree’s contract or toward signing free-agent lineman B.J. Finney. A reliable and versatile backup, Finney has 13 starts the past four seasons and is ready to make the leap to full-time starter. The Steelers could choose to move on from Foster in favor of the cheaper, 28-year-old Finney.
Another veteran who could be out the door is tight end Vance McDonald. In a 2019 that was billed to be a breakout season, McDonald had only 38 receptions for 273 yards and three touchdowns. It was a significant drop from the 50 receptions for 610 yards that he recorded the previous season. Part of that, of course, was a result of an offense that grossly underutilized its tight ends. The 29-year-old, who has two years left on his contract, comes with a cap hit of $7 million next season, and the Steelers can save $5.6 million in 2020 by cutting him before June 1. To replace McDonald, the Steelers could opt to re-sign Nick Vannett, whom they acquired in a trade with Seattle early in the season on a one-year deal. Vannett showed flashes this season, but like McDonald, he wasn’t used frequently. Signing Vannett would offer a cheaper alternative to McDonald, but the Steelers would still likely need to target a tight end in the draft.
Sign a veteran quarterback or add a quarterbacks coach
The next step in Roethlisberger’s rehabilitation from elbow surgery will come with a “significant” update from an early February checkup, Tomlin said Tuesday. That appointment should give Roethlisberger a clearer timeline on when he can return to throwing and other football activities. As it stands, it seems reasonable to expect Roethlisberger to participate in training camp, barring any setbacks. The Steelers, though, need some insurance. Roethlisberger will be 38 in March and is coming off major reconstructive surgery, and his young backups were largely ineffective in 2019. Signing a veteran quarterback in free agency -- one who has the trust of the coaching staff to change the call at the line -- is a necessary safety net to give a championship-caliber defense its best shot to be a Super Bowl contender in 2020.
“We are open to any and all options that is going to allow us to put the strongest football team that we can put on the field,” Tomlin said. “But to stand before you and act like I understand the depths of the veteran quarterback market would be an untruth.”
Even without a deep exploration of the veteran quarterback market, this much is clear: To sign one, the Steelers need far more cap space than they are projected to have. If they can’t free up the money, the Steelers could go another route to shore up the position group: hire a quarterbacks coach. In addition to being the offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner is the designated position-group coach. Fichtner held the role in 2010-17 and retained it when he was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2018. It was easy enough to do both jobs with Roethlisberger as the quarterback, but when the Steelers were tasked with bringing along two young signal-callers this season, the need for a dedicated position coach became glaringly obvious. Tomlin said in his Tuesday news conference that he is open to the idea of hiring for the position.