Even though it should not exactly be a surprise, the Pittsburgh Steelers have no exactly bolstered their roster through outside free agency so far this year, and in fact have unquestionably been the least active teams on the market. The only signing that they have made thus far was for wide receiver Justin Hunter on what is likely a one-year veteran-minimum deal.
Their relative inactivity has led many to wonder how the Steelers are going to improve themselves over last season, even though they are rarely very active in free agency, and yet have incrementally improved for the past three seasons, finally reaching the AFC Championship game at the end of the 2016 season.
I do suspect that this hand-wringing over the need for improvement via addition in free agency stems largely from the fact that Pittsburgh was handled by the Patriots in that aforementioned game, even though the biggest issues in that game were not about discrepancies in roster talent but rather in execution errors.
Never the less, there is an answer to the question of how the Steelers will improve from last season, and it starts as always with the draft. In case you haven’t noticed, the team is in a different phase of its roster makeup in which they are able to give rookies playing time, so obviously rookie draft picks will have an opportunity to improve the team over last season.
But of course the biggest improvements over last season will come simply from within. I posed the question the other day who your leading candidate was to be the team’s most improved player from last season, and the reality is that there are a lot of legitimate options.
Six different players became full-time starters over the course of last season, including four on defense. Among them were three rookies, and it’s a common saying that a player’s greatest leap comes from his first year to his second.
The reality is that three quarters of their starting secondary last season featured players in new and expanding roles. Ross Cockrell was only a rotational player in 2015 in his first season with the team. Artie Burns earned playing time last year as a rookie despite the fact that he came into the league fairly raw. That’s their starting cornerback tandem. Do they have room to grow? Absolutely.
Add to that the fact that Sean Davis was yet another rookie, and didn’t even get to focus on safety through much of the offseason when it seemed that he would have to play in the slot, and you have another obvious target area for improvement. Stability and cohesion within the secondary as a whole will be a boon.
Turning to the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers had chronic instability at the tight end and wide receiver positions, which is why the Steelers were throwing to a couple of practice squad wide receivers in the playoffs last year. Assuming Martavis Bryant is back and Sammie Coates returns to his early 2016 form is a major upgrade to a potent offense without doing anything.
No matter what happens with Ladarius Green, the tight end group will probably be improved. It seems likely that the Steelers will draft one, and Jesse James’ extensive experience from last season should make him better in year two. He needs to make more of the clutch catches and work on his yards after the catch, but there’s a reason the team likes him.