Entering 2020 NFL free agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t expected to be very active. They were hurting for cap space and were only expected to make some cuts and a few small signings. When the new CBA was passed, though, the Steelers were able to free a lot of cap space thanks to restructures. After restructuring almost everyone they could, the team had enough cap space to make some quality signings. Note: these moves don’t include players who were brought back from last year, like the tagging of Bud Dupree, re-signing of Jordan Dangerfield, or tenders of Mike Hilton and Matt Feiler.
Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agency Grades
Eric Ebron: B+
Many Steelers fans were ecstatic when it was announced the team was signing tight end Eric Ebron. The deal is only for two years and $12 million, so it seems like a bargain for someone with Ebron’s potential. Pittsburgh was able to keep and restructure Vance McDonald‘s contract, who was someone considered to be a potential cut. The team wasn’t able to bring back Nick Vannett, though, so they needed someone to pair with McDonald (who can’t be counted on to stay healthy). For now, Ebron is that guy.
There are two main areas of concern surrounding Ebron, though. The first problem is that he, like McDonald, has had problems staying healthy throughout his career. Through six NFL seasons, Ebron has appeared in all 16 games just twice. He ended last year on IR for the Indianapolis Colts. Along with his injury history, Ebron has had problems with dropping passes in the past. His drop percentages were 9.6% and 8.2% in the previous two seasons, both of which are too high.
Despite those concerns, Ebron is a good signing for the Pittsburgh Steelers at this price. He will greatly help their offense in two areas: the middle of the field and the red zone. Part of it can be attributed to the quarterback play, but Pittsburgh was abysmal in the red zone last year and they had no presence in the middle of the field. With Ben Roethlisberger coming back and Ebron as a new weapon, some of those problems should be alleviated this year.
Derek Watt: B-
Fullback was one position that the Steelers were definitely not expected to address this off-season. Roosevelt Nix was one of the best in the NFL at the position in the past. He wasn’t able to stay healthy in 2019, but he was expected to be back for 2020. Instead, the team opted to release Nix and sign Derek Watt. The contract is for three years and $9.75 million.
The contract sounds like a lot for a fullback on a team who doesn’t use a fullback often. But, maybe there are plans to start using the position more now that they will have a healthy one on the roster. Another reason the team was likely so interested in Watt is his play on special teams. Last year, he was tied for the NFL lead with 16 special teams tackles. One of the players he was tied with was former Steelers linebacker Tyler Matakevich. Matakevich signed with the Buffalo Bills this off-season, so it’s likely that the Steelers were looking to replace his special teams production with the Watt signing as well.
Watt will definitely be productive for the Steelers, but the $3.25 million per year seems a little high based on how they have used fullbacks previously. Maybe they have new plans for the offense. If that’s the case, this signing will make a lot more sense. It’s still a good pickup for special teams, though.
Stefen Wisniewski: A+
It still doesn’t make sense that the Steelers were able to get Stefen Wisniewski for such a bargain. The deal is for two years and just $2.85 million. Wisniewski provides the team much needed depth at interior offensive line, an area they were especially lacking in after longtime left guard Ramon Foster announced his retirement.
Signing Wisniewski gives the Steelers options for constructing their offensive line next season. They are expected to move Feiler to left guard and have Zach Banner and Chukwuwa Okarafor battle it out for the right tackle spot. But, if Feiler struggles with the transition or the other two don’t seem ready to start, no worries. Feiler can simply stay at right tackle and Wisniewski can be inserted at left guard. Last year was the first time that Wisniewski played under 50% of his team’s offensive snaps. He hasn’t been a regular starter for two years, but he can be if needed. This also allows the Steelers a cushion if they’d rather spend their limited draft capital somewhere else than interior offensive line depth. Overall, this is a great move especially at such a cheap price.
Chris Wormley: B
It came as a bit of a surprise when the Steelers agreed to a trade with the rival Baltimore Ravens for defensive lineman Chris Wormley. Pittsburgh received Wormley and Baltimore’s 2021 seventh-round pick, while the Ravens got the Steelers 2021 fifth-round pick in return. This move seems to make sense, as the Steelers will be trying to replace stud defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. Make no mistake about it, Wormley isn’t near the player Hargrave is. And he isn’t a true nose tackle like Hargrave, either. But, Wormley will definitely play a key role in the attempt of replacing Hargrave.
Wormley is coming off his best season by far of his young NFL career. He played 46% of the Ravens defensive snaps last year, a bit more than he will likely see the field in Pittsburgh. Whether he rotates at defensive end or bulks up and is asked to play some nose tackle, Pittsburgh wouldn’t have acquired Wormley if they didn’t have a plan for him. One reason this trade isn’t graded higher, though, is because Pittsburgh once again traded a fifth-round pick in exchange for a player on the last year of their contract. They did it in the middle of last season with Vannett, who they weren’t able to bring back. At least in this case they get another late round pick in return, though.
The other new faces in Pittsburgh so far this off-season came from the XFL. First, it was announced that the Steelers have signed XFL sack leader, defensive tackle Cavon Walker of the New York Guardians. They also signed Walker’s teammate Jarron Jones, an offensive lineman who was on various NFL practice squads before landing with the Guardians. Finally, they announced the signing of DC Defenders safety Tyree Kinnel. It is unclear at this time what kind of role any of these players will have on the Pittsburgh Steelers, so they don’t really warrant grades. Nonetheless, the signings are worth noting.
Overall Free Agency Grade: B+