Following the Week 2 injury that ended Ben Roethlisberger’s season, the Steelers made a curious move that defined their year almost as much as their franchise quarterback going down: They traded their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Getting Fitzpatrick undeniably made the Steelers better defensively, and the safety was just named to the AFC Pro Bowl roster, rewarding him for a season in which he is tied for second in the NFL with five interceptions. Fitzpatrick is the type of whirling-dervish ballhawk Pittsburgh has lacked in the secondary since Troy Polamalu retired after the 2014 season. No one can say the Steelers (8-7), who somehow still could claim No. 6 seed in the AFC, didn’t get good value for their investment.
Nevertheless, the move was curious because it’s something only a team in win-now mode would do. Oddly, by pulling it off, the Steelers committed themselves to an actual win-now approach for 2020, and that means loading up their depleted offense as much as possible given their cap limitations.
Pittsburgh is typically conservative in free agency, preferring to build through the draft. When the Steelers work the free-agent market, they usually snag a mid-level player who is a solid bargain. They need to buck that trend in 2020. The progress of the defense means the Steelers don’t necessarily need the fireworks of the Killer B’s era, but they need more weapons on offense.
More than anything else, Pittsburgh needs competent wide receivers. (A competent backup quarterback and a running back would help, too.)
In his limited action in 2019, Roethlisberger didn’t play well. His early season slump was compounded by deficiencies in the receiving corps, which sorely missed Antonio Brown. In the off-season, Pittsburgh signed veteran wideout Donte Moncrief, but he was a flop and released at midseason. Without AB, JuJu Smith-Schuster has regressed with the severely limited Mason Rudolph and “Duck” Hodges throwing to him. Younger wideouts James Washington and Diontae Johnson have shown flashes, but a need for one more talented target could not be more pronounced.
The biggest prize among wide receivers in the free-agent market would ostensibly be Amari Cooper, though it still seems hard to believe the Cowboys would let him slip away. Dallas has worked unsuccessfully to sign him and quarterback Dak Prescott to long-term deals. Those negotiations will surely resume in earnest once the season is over.
The problem for the Steelers if Cooper does actually hit the market is cap space, which Pittsburgh lacks. The Steelers are projected to have about $6.1 million available heading into 2020, the fourth-lowest total in the league. They can boost that by cutting linebacker Mark Barron, who’s expendable given the rise of rookie Devin Bush, and possibly by restructuring Roethlisberger’s contract, as he’s set to have a $33.5 million cap hit in 2020. They’ll also need to re-sign edge rusher Bud Dupree, who has steadily improved and become a key part of the pass rush.
So an absolute superstar like Cooper is almost certainly too expensive even if he is available. There are other possibilities, including A.J. Green, who didn’t play this season and is coming off a major injury. Although his production has been sterling, Green will be 32 by the time the 2020 season starts. Cincinnati could franchise-tag him, though he has announced he’ll skip OTAs and training camp if it does.
Another, more affordable possibility, assuming he isn’t retained by his current team, is former Steelers wideout Emmanuel Sanders, who was dealt midseason by the Broncos to the 49ers. San Francisco gave third- and fourth-round picks to get him, so there’s certainly incentive for the 49ers to keep Sanders.
Robby Anderson, who scored the lone touchdown against the Steelers in the Jets’ Week 16 win, is another intriguing possibility. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent, and New York reportedly was interested in moving him at the trade deadline. Under the tutelage of offensive assistant Hines Ward, the former Steelers great, Anderson has thrived (49 catches for 761 yards, five TDs). The four-year veteran probably wouldn’t command top dollar and would pair well alongside Smith-Schuster and Washington.
If a report Roethlisberger is considering retiring are true, all bets are off. But for now, he’s expected back. In March, he’ll turn 38. Drew Brees and Tom Brady have been able to remain elite quarterbacks into their 40s, though the extensive amount of physical punishment Roethlisberger has taken in his career may limit his ability to do the same. The Steelers must operate under the assumption that the next year or two represent a championship window they must exploit. They don’t have their next franchise quarterback on the roster. And because they’ve dealt the first-round pick in next year’s draft, the likelihood they’ll get their next long-term starter in 2020 is slim.
We won’t know the full picture of who will be available in free agency for another month or so. But this much is clear: The Steelers must land another starter-worthy receiver in 2020. If they can, they’ll set themselves up nicely for a title run. If they don’t, it’ll make some of their recent decision-making look impulsive and foolish.