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The Pittsburgh Steelers answered their biggest question during the 2022 NFL draft. With the 20th overall pick, they took Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett, thereby making him the long-term successor to future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger.
While Pickett has a long way to go to match Roethlisberger in Steelers lore—and it remains unclear exactly when he’ll take the reins—Pittsburgh has its quarterback of the future and can focus solely on the 2022 season.
Part of Pittsburgh’s preparation should involve revisiting the free-agent market. Several good players are still out there, and the Steelers have $12.7 million in cap space remaining. Of course, a large chunk of that will be necessary to sign draft picks, so the Pittsburgh must be prudent with any signings and may still have to create some cap room to make additions.
With all of this in mind, let’s examine three available veterans the Steelers should target post-draft.
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Let’s start with an easy one, cornerback Joe Haden. The 33-year-old has started for Pittsburgh for five years, and while he fell off a bit in 2021—he allowed an opposing quarterback rating of 100.1—he’s a three-time Pro Bowler who knows Pittsburgh’s tendencies and personnel inside and out.
Haden also dealt with a foot injury last season, which may explain his drop in coverage prowess.
The Steelers ranked a solid ninth in passing yards allowed last season, but Levi Wallace was Pittsburgh’s only free-agent cornerback addition, and the Steelers didn’t draft one.
Had the Steelers picked up a cornerback over draft weekend, closing the book on Haden would make some sense. He’s one of the best options out there, but he probably won’t be the cheapest. Now, though, re-signing Haden is the logical step.
The trick will be getting Haden to agree to a relatively team-friendly price. That could take some finagling and perhaps a very incentive-laden offer. However, Pittsburgh knows Haden can be a valuable commodity in the AFC North, and that’s reason enough to get a deal done.
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Moving away from former Steelers, linebacker Anthony Hitchens is a logical target. Pittsburgh did pick up Garnard Avery and Myles Jack in free agency, but they’re a lot of work yet to be done at the second level. Pittsburgh was atrocious against the run in 2021, finishing the season last in both yards and yards per rush allowed.
Pittsburgh also parted with Linebacker Joe Schobert and didn’t draft a linebacker until taking Mark Robinson in the seventh round.
Hitchens can be an asset against the run and has topped 75 tackles in each of his past six seasons. Last season with the Kansas City Chiefs, he tallied 80 tackles, 41 solo stops and four tackles for loss while only being credited with four missed tackles.
Schobert, by comparison, was credited with nine missed tackles in 2021.
The 29-year-old can also help boost Pittsburgh’s second-level pass defense. Last season he allowed an opposing passer rating of only 83.4. That’s moderately better than Schobert, who allowed a rating of 90.0 in coverage.
As with Haden, the challenge for Pittsburgh will be signing Hitchens to a deal that makes financial sense. If the Steelers can make it happen, they should. Last year’s un-Steelers-like run defense is something no one in Pittsburgh wants to see again.
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On paper, the Steelers have plenty of weapons with which to surround Pickett—or Mason Rudolph or Mitchell Trubisky—this season. Pittsburgh’s skill group is led by wideout Diontae Johnson and rookie Pro Bowl running back Najee Harris. They also have receiver Chase Claypool and tight end Pat Freiermuth.
In free agency, Pittsburgh added receivers Miles Boykin and Anthony Miller. In the draft, they snagged wideouts George Pickens and Calvin Austin III.
There’s plenty of depth at most positions, but Pittsburgh could use another receiving tight end as both insurance and to complement Freiermuth. The Steelers added tight end and fullback Connor Heyward in the sixth round, but he projects as more of an H-back and rotational player than a dedicated pass-catcher.
“We’re excited to see what he can do as a tight end, as an H-back, as a special teamer,” then-general manager Kevin Colbert said after the draft, per Teresa Varley of the team’s official website.
Veteran tight end Jared Cook isn’t likely to command a premium on the open market, and the 35-year-old can be a reliable receiving weapon. Last season with the Los Angeles Chargers, Cook caught 48 passes for 564 yards and four touchdowns.
Cook played a big role in helping second-year quarterback Justin Herbert emerge as a Pro Bowler in 2021, and he could help guide Pickett as a member of the Steelers.
*Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.