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Steelers, JuJu Smith-Schuser, Mike Tomlin

Biggest need the Steelers still must address after first week of NFL free agency

Boy, when the wheels come off, they come off. After starting 11-0, the Pittsburgh Steelers took a big step in it to end the season, and ended up losing to perennial AFC North doormat Cleveland twice in one season. Worst of all, the second loss was in the playoffs.

This team, talented as it is, absolutely self-destructed to end the season, and is now paying the price.

In all honesty, the Steelers have multiple needs this off-season, but isolating one overarching one in free agency is going to be a little difficult given their cap situation at the moment.

No running backs that are left on the board that fit Pittsburgh’s budget, and it’s unlikely that James Conner will even give them the time of day. Nor is it guaranteed that he is worth the risk given his injury history. With the Steelers linked to stud back Najee Harris, expect them to wait for him or someone else in the coming draft.

An easy thing for the Steelers to address would be signing an edge rusher for what became the worst defense at the line of scrimmage after Bud Dupree went down. But even with Dupree gone to Tennessee, the Steelers can’t afford to take a risk on a top name like Melvin Ingram or Jadaveon Clowney if it wants to make a half-decent offer to DPOY TJ Watt next offseason. No, expect Pittsburgh to also address this need in the upcoming draft.

No, the biggest need Pittsburgh has to address this off-season is larger than any one specific need.

They need the free agents they have to believe in them. For whatever reason, something that was said to Juju Smith-Schuster got the star wideout to stay for one year on a discount, despite multi-year offers from both Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Mike Tomlin has always been a beacon for players. If he can get multiple, older players to buy in, the Steelers will have a nice stopgap between their current roster and the unknown in this year’s draft.

Linemen like Alejandro Villanueva and Jerald Hawkins are getting up there in age, and underperformed in the run blocking department this year. But if Pittsburgh can somehow convince them to buy in for just a year, they do have some either left in the tank, or to pass down to their successors.

With that done, the Steelers can focus on retaining the one youthful free agent they have left in Adeniyi to add some depth on the front end of their defense.

Truthfully, however these Steelers have a big problem not on the field, but in the locker room. There is a malaise surrounding the team right now, a stillness that must be cleansed by more than a flashy signing. Granted, the team hasn’t necessarily built a reputation on flash.

Their player development program has built a formidable reputation, as attested by the amount of homegrown talent that they’ve managed to cultivate. The trouble is that right now, that talent is either aging, underperforming, or just ready to leave. So, the needs for Pittsburgh in free agency remain the same as they have had for years. Isolate the free agents that you both need and can afford to keep, and keep them happy.

While it’s a shame that the Steelers don’t have the cap space to take advantage of the remaining crop of free agents, every single one left on the market comes with huge asterisks either on or off the field. The Steelers don’t have to do anything major, and right now, they simply can’t afford to. What they can afford to do, however, is to make sure that the free agents that they have to believe that this team’s window to win is still open.