By Jeremy Hritz
The Pittsburgh Steelers will have a unique experience this offseason, and one that they are truly unfamiliar with: a glut of cap space. Thankfully for the team, this comes at a time when they need it most, as there are several holes on this roster that cannot be filled alone by the 2022 NFL Draft. Irregardless of outside free agents, there are key players whose contracts are up on the team that they must prioritize in re-signing in order to maintain stability and to allow for other resources in terms of cap space and draft picks to be used for those glaring areas of weakness. With that in mind, here are 5 re-signings the Steelers must doggedly pursue this offseason.
Chukwuma Okorafor, Tackle
The troubles on the offensive are well-documented, but if there were two spots that offered at least average play last season, it was at left and right tackle. On the right side, 25-year old Chukwuma Okorafor was serviceable, not great, and possibly the most reliable offensive lineman for the Steelers. He knows the organization, the offensive system, and the team expectations, and as a young player, he still has room to grow. The Steelers have several years invested into Okorafor, and allowing him to walk could be a premature move that would allow a team to enjoy the fruits of their investment. By re-signing Okorafor, the Steelers can focus their energies on bolstering the interior of the offensive line, both guard positions and center, and emphasize the player development elements for Okorafor. Sure, he may never be a Pro Bowler, but he is decent, and he can provide stability and continuity to a unit that will desperately need it this upcoming season.
Montravious Adams, Defensive Tackle
Like the offensive line, the defensive line, sans Cameron Heyward, was abysmal in 2021. Montravious Adams, who was signed off the Saints practice squad, however, provided some flashes and reasons for optimism. Adams has explosiveness and burst, and is able to quickly penetrate into the backfield to disrupt the running game, and at times, to push the passing game off-schedule. He is not a big bodied interior defender, which is a need for this team, but at 27 years old, Adams is a player who can provide value as a role player on the DL. He should not come at a high price, and with a full year in the team’s offseason program and participating in training camp, his contributions to the team could increase in 2022.
Ahkello Witherspoon, Cornerback
Joe Haden‘s time with the Steelers is over, barring a return on minced contract and to a limited role, pushing the need for a starting cornerback to the top of the priority list. Unfortunately, there are several other needs as such, which is why when you have a solution in house as the Steelers do with Witherspoon, you re-sign him. Witherspoon balled out in the final part of the season and showed the athleticism and ball skills needed in a starting corner. The question is, did Witherspoon price himself out of Pittsburgh with his play in those final games? The Steelers have to make a genuine effort to re-sign Witherspoon, as not doing so vacates a starting corner position that will have to be filled by another veteran free agent, or a player in the draft, something that seems highly unlikely based on the Steelers lack of success in drafting cornerbacks.
Terrell Edmunds, Safety
Terrell Edmunds had his best season as a Steeler in 2021, and he has become a steady partner to the All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick. For what Edmunds lacks in pass coverage, he makes up for with physicality and consistency, and as has been the common theme here, if the Steelers let him walk, they will need to find a starter through either free agency or the draft, while also trying to fill all of their other needs. Like Okorafor, Edmunds is one of the Steelers own, and they have invested a lot of time and resources into his development. Why not continue to benefit from that development by re-signing him, especially as he will be entering the prime years of his career? I’m all for upgrading positions, but Edmunds is a quality players, and there are too many other glaring needs on this team to be in the market for another safety.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver
By now, you are seeing a pattern in my analysis: there are too many needs on this team to allow in-house solutions to walk. The same goes for wide receiver and Juju Smith-Schuster. At 26 years old, Juju still has a great deal of productive football ahead of him, and he is a reliable target in traffic and can be a veteran presence for Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool who are still leveling up their game. The Steelers still have a need for a deep threat receiver, but not re-signing Juju would create another hole and a need for a possession receiver in the vein of Smith-Schuster, increasing the needs of the team and the work it has to do this offseason. Again, there is only so much capital to go around this offseason for improvement. While I believe this is a critical re-signing, I don’t see it happening, as I don’t believe the Steelers will pay Juju what he is seeking, and I believe there is a part of Juju who wants a fresh start.