The Pittsburgh Steelers released 9-year veteran right guard David DeCastro on Thursday with a non-football injury designation. They followed up by signing free agent Trai Turner, who will likely step in at that exact position. Turner carries a small amount of risk, but hits on multiple factors that are important for what the Steelers should be trying to do this offseason.
As much as I have criticized the Steelers for how they have operated this offseason, criticism I stand by, this is exactly the type of move this team should be making. They get younger, pursue their stated franchise goals and save money all at the same time.
The details on DeCastro's injury are not fully known, but he has at least reportedly contemplated retirement. He has been outstanding for the Steelers and was their best offensive lineman in 2020, but that isn't saying much even if though he was named to the Pro Bowl.
The Steelers offensive line had been relying on a trio of offensive linemen for years in Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle, Maurkice Pouncey at center and DeCastro at guard. Particularly when the team had Mike Munchak guiding the offensive line and Ben Roethlisberger at the peak of his powers, they had one of the best units in the NFL paving the way for Le'Veon Bell.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, last year they started looking their respective ages. Pouncey retired, Villanueva is a pretty solid but unspectacular pass protector at this point and then DeCastro is still the best of the three, but he isn't as good as he has been.
On the interior of the offensive line, the Steelers have a viable plan going forward. Matt Feiler, who played both right tackle and left guard at times depending on what the Steelers needed signed with the San Diego Chargers. Kevin Dotson, who was a promising looking rookie with plenty of reason to have the Steelers organization excited will step in as the projected starter.
At center, the Steelers drafted Kendrick Green in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft and he has a lot to like. Big and powerful, it may take him some time to get comfortable in the NFL, but he's their future. Until he's ready, the team re-acquired B.J. Finney in free agency, who spent time with the Seattle Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals after his first stint with the Steelers. He was an effective cog in the lineup as Pouncey's backup who could also play in a pinch at guard.
That gives the line a veteran pivot who can stabilize them in terms of line calls. Even if DeCastro hurts from the standpoint of being the last veteran in Pittsburgh who provided leadership in the offensive line room, I can appreciate the idea that if they're going to start fresh, go all the way, especially since they overhauled so much of the coaching staff.
Turner gives them what should at least be a nice stopgap, but if he can return to the form he had particularly when he was a member of the Carolina Panthers, he could be an outstanding pickup at a time when teams shouldn't be able to acquire effective offensive linemen.
The key is that Doston, Green and Turner are all earth moving type offensive linemen. And even if the names aren't famous, that is exactly who this team wants to be. Do I think they should have drafted offensive tackle help before a franchise tailback? Absolutely.
However, if Doston and Turner can give them the power they seek, it could really open up some running lanes for rookie Najee Harris. The Steelers desperately want to be able to produce yardage on the ground and in 2020, they were incapable. It wasn't all on the blocking up front as there were some opportunities that weren't maximized, but that combination yielded virtually zero results. The Steelers are banking on the fact that if this group of offensive linemen provide a hole, Harris will exploit it.
This is also prioritizing the interior of the line over the tackle positions. And even if Roethlisberger isn't short like a Baker Mayfield or Drew Brees, where he is now in his career, having interior pass protection is more valuable.
Roethlisberger can't move anymore. When he runs now, he looks like he's swearing the entire time. He can process at a high speed, so it's entirely a matter of geometry. The shortest distance between Roethlisberger and the pass rush is on the inside. Keep him protected, allow him to step up and he can be effective, even if he's not likely to return to the form he showed as recently as 2018. He can still be more efficient than he was in 2020.
Likely, the offensive tackles, including Chuks Okorafor, Zach Banner, Jarron Jones, and Rahaad Coward among others aren't going to be asked to try to get outside to take on speed rushers in pass protection. Given their size and agility, notably their lack of agility, they are going to force pass rushers to take the long way around. Don't allow them inside and by the time they get there, Roethlisberger will have the ball out of his hand.
If the running game can be at least moderately effective, they opens up some playaction and potentially the vertical game.
So as much as I think the Steelers are going to be in for a brutally difficult year in part because they have lost a ton of talent and they play a daunting schedule, swapping out DeCastro for Turner is smart. Save money, get younger, and give yourself options. If Turner is able to return to form or even close to it, they can keep him. If not, they can move on and look for someone else.
If the opportunity presents itself, the Steelers should take a similar approach with Joe Haden, their 32-year old corner who is set to earn $15.75 million this year. They may not be willing to go that route since he was willing to restructure at one point, but if they can find a younger corner to bring in along the lines of Turner, it could help them get their salary cap in shape much quicker.