Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The Steelers enter free agency tight against the salary cap and suffer some losses that have fans gnashing their teeth.
Then, over the next few days or weeks, they fill in the spots to the point where if they had to line up and play a game right before the draft, they could do so with NFL-caliber players.
Such it was this year. Except this year, they filled the spots in a 24-hour period, taking advantage of the second wave of free agency after all the silly money had been spent.
And because of the moves, they’ll enter the draft without any obvious needs — as usual.
Thursday night, they signed interior offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski, replacing B.J. Finney. Friday morning, they re-signed safety Jordan Dangerfield, keeping the status quo at that position. Then, they added tight end Eric Ebron in free agency and traded for defensive lineman Chris Wormley in place of Nick Vannett and Javon Hargrave. All that came after the team agreed to terms Wednesday with fullback Derek Watt to replace both Tyler Matakevich as a special teams ace and Roosevelt Nix, who missed most of the 2019 season with a knee injury.
Now, we can argue over whether the Steelers are a better team with these moves over the one that ended the 2019 season, but there are some caveats, not the least of which is Ben Roethlisberger‘s health.
The Steelers loved Finney. He was a valuable member of the team the past four years. And they made a pitch to keep him. But they weren’t going to go to $4 million per year with him, not when they couldn’t guarantee him a starting spot.
In Wisniewski, they get a player who is not only more experienced than Finney — though slightly older — but one who has started two of the past three Super Bowls. Nothing against Finney, but he couldn’t offer that.
Ebron offers an upgrade over what the Steelers did last season at tight end, when they opened the season with Xavier Grimble backing up Vance McDonald before making a trade for Vannett. Without Roethlisberger, opponents loaded the middle of the field with defenders and the tight ends were nearly nonexistent in the passing game.
That won’t be the case with the addition of Ebron. He has issues with drops, but he’s a player who must be accounted for. He certainly can challenge the seam and could help open things up for JuJu Smith-Schuster. Or Dionate Johnson. Or James Washington. Or even McDonald.
There’s some risk. Like McDonald, Ebron comes to the Steelers with a reputation for dropping some easy passes, though that hasn’t exactly been an issue for McDonald since coming here.
The other issue for Ebron, much like McDonald, is health. But that seems to be the case for all tight ends. Because of the rigors of the position, they get beaten up more than other spots. And though Ebron played all 16 games in 2017 and 2018, he’s missed games in each of his other four NFL seasons, including five in 2019 with an ankle injury that required surgery.
At worst, the Steelers will have one starting-caliber tight end available every game in 2020. At best, they’ll have two tight ends capable of challenging opposing defenses.
Finally, adding Wormley gives the team much better depth on the defensive line, at least at end. While Hargrave played 62.7 percent of the defensive snaps in 2019 — a career high — he played just 43.6 percent in 2018 — a career low.
The idea for the Steelers is to not play as much 3-4. In fact, the idea is to only be in that look about 25 percent of the time. Tyson Alualu can certainly handle those snaps.
But somebody was needed to handle the snaps Alualu would have gotten backing up Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Wormley gives them a player capable of doing that. And if Isaiah Buggs, a 2019 sixth-round pick continues to improve, he could be in that mix, as well.
The Steelers only have six picks in this year’s draft. And the first one doesn’t come until 49th overall. They weren’t going to be able to fill all of those holes then. In fact, given the talent available in this draft at tight end and interior offensive lineman, there wasn’t a player that was going to be available to them who is better than Ebron or Wisniewski — at least not in 2020.
And for a team that fancies itself a Super Bowl contender, the 2020 product is all that mattered.
These moves won’t preclude the Steelers from taking a player at any of the positions addressed. But the Steelers won’t have to do so. They really can focus on taking the best player available, though an outside linebacker, running back or an offensive tackle to groom for the future sure would look good.
It’s all on the table now with these latest moves.
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