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Who is the Steelers Top Priority to Re-Sign in Free Agency?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a list of noteworthy free agents this offseason.

The Pittsburgh Steelers enter this offseason with more cap space than they are accustomed to having. With that, however, comes a significant amount of questions. They currently have over 20 players slated to hit the open market in a couple weeks, but which player should be their number one priority to retain?

JuJu Smith-Schuster

Perhaps the biggest name with an expiring contract is JuJu Smith-Schuster, who surprisingly made his way back to Pittsburgh on a one year deal last offseason. 

Smith-Schuster's career in the steel city got off to a torrid start but has since been a little bumpy due to injuries, a change in role and inconsistent quarterback play. Even before suffering what was thought to be a season ending shoulder injury, Smith-Schuster saw his route tree reduced once again to underneath routes. 

Out of the 145 receivers with 20 targets last season, Smith-Schuster had a lower average depth of target (6.1) than all but seven of them., per Sports Info Solutions.

There is no doubt that Smith-Schuster is an asset when used correctly. The question is more about his health especially given the tough, grind it out style that he plays. He's missed chunks of time in two of the last three seasons while appearing on the injury report more often than not. 

His market never materialized last season and it's hard to predict his suitors after missing almost all of last season. The Steelers should be interested in a short term return but this isn't a likely reunion.

Joe Haden

Then there's Joe Haden, the former Cleveland Brown who has spent the last five years of his career in Pittsburgh. The soon to be 33-year-old missed five games last season due to injury but still played a role in the Steelers defense yet again. 

At this point of Haden's career, he's relying heavily on his fundamentals and football IQ rather than his athleticism. Opposing quarterbacks had a 91.9 QB rating when targeting Haden last season.

Haden's still capable of playing in a zone heavy scheme but he's clearly lost a step. There were a couple times last season where he was just absolutely dusted by faster receivers down the field, like in the Detroit game. 

He's always been one of the highest paid players at his position but that is likely coming to an end. It makes more sense for Haden to join a contender on a short term deal to try and secure a ring to go with the more than 120 million in contracts that he's earned over the course of his career.

Trai Turner

Kicking back over to the offensive side of the ball, Trai Turner is also set to become a free agent. Turner was the late offseason addition in response to the news that David Decastro was no longer apart of the teams plans. To Turner's credit, he was playing next to a completely new set of inexperienced players and a scheme that didn't do him a ton of favors. 

He relished his leadership role amongst all of the young players along the line. PFF charted him with seven allowed sacks, some of those being complete miscommunications or mental errors.

Turner, similar to Haden, is a decent player as long as you don't ask him to do too much. The injuries that Turner has suffered have clearly zapped him of the athleticism that he was known for coming out of college. When it comes to getting to the second level on run blocking plays, you can forget about it. He's a mostly reliable pass protector when working in a phone booth. However, the Steelers really need to upgrade the offensive line and settling for Turner at guard again next season would feel underwhelming.

Terrell Edmunds

Edmunds has been the scapegoat of the Steelers defense since he was over-drafted back in 2018 but has turned himself into a solid player. 

Edmunds is a quality run defender when working in the box, that's where his value is. However, he's improved as a cover guy over the course of his career. 

Edmunds is capable of matching up with tight ends and holding his own. This past season, opposing quarterbacks had just a 85.3 QB rating when targeting the former first round pick, per Sports Info Solutions.

Edmunds probably is what he is at this point and that's a solid starting strong safety. The playmaking skills never seemed to develop at this level. Despite not doing anything exceptionally well, Edmunds is a guy who does his job, fills his role and can be relied on. That reliability can be explained by the fact that he's missed just one game in his entire professional career. 

The question is, what do you pay a well rounded box safety that lacks playmaking ability? We are about to find out but both sides could benefit to working out a second contract in the range of what Baltimore signed Chuck Clark to last offseason, roughly $5.1M APY.

Ahkello Witherspoon

Imagine talking to anyone back in November about Ahkello Witherspoon being an important piece to the Steelers defense. After struggling to get on the field for most of the season, Witherspoon came on strong to a pass defense that really needed it. He honestly looked like one of the Steelers best players down the stretch, giving them the ability to matchup with teams in man coverage. One of the more bizarre stats that I have seen in a while: in weeks 13-18, Witherspoon had more interceptions and pass deflections (7) than he allowed catches (6). 

Ask anyone who's followed Witherspoon professional career and they'll tell you that inconsistency has been his biggest issue. There's times where he looks like a CB1, such as he did down the stretch in Pittsburgh. Then there's times where he looks like he doesn't belong out there. 

He's not going to break the bank on the open market but a shorter term deal where he can increase his value before hitting free agency again would be ideal.

There's an argument to be made for a couple of these players but Witherspoon is the type of short-term signing that could reap serious rewards. He's shown the ability to be a high level corner for at least short stretches of time. 

It would be up to the coaching staff to get the most out of him on a consistent basis. He may not offer you the type of floor that a guy like Edmunds does but a really good CB2 is harder to find and overall more valuable than a solid strong safety.

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