The Pittsburgh Steelers' 2021 season will be remembered for several different reasons. It will largely be remembered for being an unpredictable roller-coaster ride that saw them make the playoffs despite glaring weaknesses on both sides of the ball.
The '21 season will also be remembered for T.J. Watt's overall brilliance that led to him matching Michael Strahan's single-season sack record. Fans will also remember the emergence of rookies Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth, who quickly became key cogs of the Steelers' offense. More than anything, the 2021 season will be most remembered for being the final year of Ben Roethlisberger's surefire Hall of Fame career. Roethlisberger received an emotional send-off against the Browns in Week 17 before delivering one last comeback win in Baltimore in Week 18.
With the 2021 season now in the rearview mirror, it's time to take a look at what the Steelers need to do in order to put themselves in position to get back to the AFC's upper echelon in 2022.
Find capable QB competition for Rudolph
This is the big question hovering over the Steelers. At a minimum, the Steelers can go with Mason Rudolph, who went 5-3 as a starter when Roethlisberger went down with an elbow injury two weeks into the 2019 season. Rudolph's erratic play has not endeared himself to fans, but Roethlisberger feels that an open quarterback competition may bring out the best in his former understudy. Diontae Johnson was also complimentary of Rudolph when asked about the future of the Steelers' quarterback position.
"He's a great player," Johnson said of Rudolph, who enjoyed a prolific career at Oklahoma State before being the Steelers' third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. "I'm sure he's going to work his tail off to compete for the starting job. I'm pulling for him."
Given their other needs, don't expect Rudolph's challenger to be a high-priced veteran who may have a Super Bowl win on his resume. Some realistic options include veterans Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, and Marcus Mariota. They could pursue Drew Lock if the Broncos are willing to take a late-round pick. Pittsburgh could draft a quarterback in the first round, but they won't reach on a player they aren't sold on. Unless Kenny Pickett somehow falls to the second half of the first round, the Steelers will go with a veteran quarterback in 2022.
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Strengthen the O-line
The Steelers knew they'd have to replace Alejandro Villanueva this time last offseason. They surely had a hunch that longtime starting center Maurkice Pouncey was also going to retire following his emotional postgame moment with Roethlisberger following Pittsburgh's 2020 wild card loss to Cleveland. They also allowed tackle Matt Feiler to sign with the Titans, who will host the Bengals this weekend in the divisional round.
The Steelers probably did not anticipate having to release former All-Pro guard David DeCastro after his ankle did not recover enough in time to be ready for the '21 season. They also likely expected to get more contributions from Zach Banner than they did this past season, as Banner played in just 27 regular-season snaps.
Pittsburgh replaced those players with a rookie center (Kendrick Green), a rookie left tackle (Dan Moore Jr.), and a former Pro Bowl guard who was still unsigned at the start of training camp (Trai Turner). Pittsburgh also started two former undrafted players in J.C. Hassenauer and John Leglue. The results were as expected. The unit took its lumps before making gradual improvement, especially in pass protection. Ironically, two of the line's best run-blocking games came against the Cleveland Browns' formidable defensive front. The unit's brightest moment was in Week 17, when the line helped Harris run for a season-high 188 yards that included the game-clinching, 37-yard score.
Green, Moore and 2020 fourth-round pick Kevin Dotson will remain in the Steelers' plans next season but will have to compete to regain their starting jobs. Look for the Steelers to invest in their offensive line this offseason, both in free agency as well as in the draft. Our CBS Sports NFL Draft expert Ryan Wilson has Pittsburgh selecting former Texas A&M offensive lineman Kenyon Green in the first round in his most recent mock draft.
Possible free agent options on the offensive line include Bears center James Daniels, Washington guard Brandon Scherff, 49ers guard Laken Tomlinson, Cowboys guard Connor Williams, Jaguars guard Andrew Norwell, Seahawks tackle Duane Brown, Colts tackle Eric Fisher, and Jets tackle Morgan Moses. The Steelers will likely try to re-sign tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who was one of the few mainstays on the line over the last two seasons.
Extend Minkah Fitzpatrick's contract
Fitzpatrick is deserving of a long-term contract that would place him among the league's highest-paid defensive backs. Fitzpatrick was spread extremely thin at 2021 as he was often asked to help mask the Steelers' deficiencies in the front seven. The result was 129 tackles, 45 more than he had in the same amount of games in 2020. The two-time All-Pro still managed to make several big plays in pass defense despite his large presence in run defense.
The Steelers picked up Fitzpatrick's fifth-year option last spring, but it's highly unlikely that he will play under the option in 2022. Fitzpatrick has proven that he is worth an extension, and the Steelers have the money (they are projected to have almost $45 million in cap space) to get a deal done.
JuJu, Haden, and Bush
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Joe Haden are among the Steelers' players who are slated to hit free agency. As they did last offseason, expect Smith-Schuster to test the market. The Steelers will likely make him an offer, but there's a good chance that the former team MVP signs elsewhere if his market is more robust this year than it was last offseason. Smith-Schuster likely elevated his market value by returning to play in Pittsburgh's wild card game roughly three months after undergoing shoulder surgery.
If Smith-Schuster doesn't return, that will give outgoing GM Kevin Colbert one last opportunity to work his magic when it comes to drafting receivers. Colbert's track record at drafting receivers includes Smith-Schuster (2017), Antonio Brown (2010), Emmanuel Sanders (2010), Mike Wallace (2009), and Santonio Holmes (2006), among others.
Pittsburgh informed Haden last offseason that they would not redo his contract before the 2021 season. When healthy, Haden was still a capable player who brought energy to the field and on the practice field. But his age (he will be 33 before the start of next season), injury issues and the emergence of Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon (who is also slated to enter free agency) gives the Steelers some bargaining leverage. The Steelers should make Haden a fair offer, but they cannot overpay given their other roster needs.
He had an interception in Sunday night's loss to the Chiefs, but linebacker Devin Bush largely struggled in his third season. Some of his struggles could be attributed to the fact that he was coming back from a major knee injury. Regardless, the Steelers will probably not pick up Bush's fifth-year option, which will make the 2022 season a pivotal one for the former first-round pick. While Bush should bounce back in 2022, the Steelers need to have a contingency plan if Bush does not improve. With that in mind, expect the Steelers to invest some at inside linebacker, both in the draft and in free agency.