The Steelers' free agent philosophy has evolved since the 1990s. In his autobiography, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher wrote that back then, the Steelers' philosophy was to replace their outgoing free agents with rookies. This initially led to some down years, but eventually, many of those rookies turned into seasoned veterans who helped Pittsburgh win two championships during the 2000s.
While they still prefer homegrown talent over outside help, the Steelers have embraced modern free agency since the start of the new millennium. Linebacker James Farrior, acquired in 2002, is regarded as the best free agent signing in franchise history. Cornerback Joe Haden's arrival in 2017 was also significant, as Pittsburgh's pass defense -- one of the league's worst before his arrival -- has been one of the NFL's best over the past five years.
The Steelers will likely lean on history as they chart out a path for free agency this season. If this was a normal offseason, the Steelers would make subtle moves during the second wave of free agency while largely letting other teams grab the headlines. But this is not a typical offseason, given Ben Roethlisberger's retirement and the fact that longtime general manager Kevin Colbert is putting the finishing touches on his highly successful 22-year run with the team. Colbert is not looking to jeopardize the Steelers' future, but he does want to put the team in the best possible position to win a seventh Lombardi before handing the reigns to his successor.
What does this mean for the Steelers' offseason? Look for Pittsburgh to largely stick to its playbook while being somewhat more aggressive than they usually are this time of year. Unless, that is, they are able to replace Roethlisberger with another future Hall of Fame quarterback. With that in mind, let's take a look at the five moves Colbert and company should make during free agency, which officially begins on March 16.
1. Aggressively pursue Aaron Rodgers
We recently broke down what the Steelers' starting lineup could look like with Rodgers, who reportedly has included the Steelers as one of the teams he is considering if he decides to leave Green Bay (Tennessee and Denver are the other two). While it's still not a perfect roster, adding Rodgers to a team that went 9-7-1 last year is significant, especially when you look at what Tom Brady's arrival meant for the Buccaneers (a 7-9 team the year before Brady arrived) and what Matthew Stafford's arrival in Los Angeles meant for the Rams.
Surprisingly, there appear to be parts of Pittsburgh's fan base who aren't crazy about the idea of Rodgers joining the team. How much the Steelers would have to give up to acquire him (both draft picks and money) is surely one reason. Another could be the hoopla that comes with Rodgers, who is seemingly always in the news. Regardless, Rodgers is still playing at an MVP level, and if there is a possibility that he and the Steelers can join forces, Pittsburgh needs to aggressively pursue this option.
As Colbert always says, winning the Super Bowl is the only standard in Pittsburgh. Rodgers would help the Steelers add to their trophy case. It's as simple as that, and that's why the Steelers need to do everything in their power to acquire him.
2. Sign DT Larry Ogunjobi
Pittsburgh had the worst run defense in the NFL last season. For a franchise that prides itself on running the ball and dominating opposing running games, this was obviously a bitter pill for Mike Tomlin and the Steelers' brass to swallow.
There's no promises that Stephon Tuitt will return after missing the entire 2021 season for physical and personal reasons. Tyson Alualu will be back after missing most of last year with an injury, but he will be 35 next season and will be going into the final year of his contract. Cameron Heyward, the leader of Pittsburgh's defensive front, is still playing at an elite level. But Heyward will be 33 before the start of next season.
Ogunjobi would be an ideal addition to Pittsburgh's defensive front. Last season, his first in Cincinnati, Ogunjobi had a career-high seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hits in 16 games. Ogunjobi was forced to watch the majority of the Bengals' playoff run after he suffered a foot injury during Cincinnati's wild card win over Las Vegas. Assuming that he is healthy, the 27-year-old would be a big addition to the Steelers' defense. He is also relatively affordable, as there are several other high-profile defensive linemen who may overshadow him on the open market.
3. Sign C Ryan Jensen
The Steelers are reportedly interested in acquiring Jensen, and for good reason. The soon-to-be 31-year-old center is coming off of his first Pro Bowl selection. In 2020, he helped Brady win his seventh Super Bowl ring. Jensen has been extremely durable, as he has not missed a start since the start of the 2017 season.
Jensen's market value is about $30.2 million over three years, according to Spotrac. While it would be an investment, the Steelers' line needs an anchor after losing Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Alejandro Villanueva the previous offseason. Adding a veteran of Jensen's caliber could do wonders for Pittsburgh's young offensive line.
4. Sign either Quandre Diggs or Kareem Jackson
While he enjoyed a successful partnership with Minkah Fitzpatrick, it appears that former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds' time in Pittsburgh is over. The Steelers wouldn't let Edmunds test the market unless they are confident that they can replace him with someone better. This would suggest that they have an idea of who they'd like to replace him with, as there are several talented strong safeties that will be available in free agency, led by Diggs and Jackson.
Both players come with pros and cons. Diggs is younger (29) and was a Pro Bowler during his last two years in Seattle. He is currently working his way back after breaking his fibula during Seattle's final game of the 2021 season (he will reportedly be ready for the start of training camp). Jackson is older (he turns 34 in April), but he is a savvy, accomplished player who seems like a natural fit in Pittsburgh's defense. Jackson will also likely be a cheaper option to Diggs who, despite his injury, is the top-rated strong safety in free agency. Either one would be a good choice.
5. Re-sign Joe Haden
Injuries limited Haden to just 11 games last season. But when he was on the field, Haden was still one of Pittsburgh's best players. He is also one of the Steelers' biggest leaders, an intangible that is even more valuable following Roethlisberger's retirement.
The Steelers could opt to try to sign a cornerback in free agency, specifically former Patriot J.C. Jackson. But Haden would be a more affordable option. The Steelers could re-sign Haden, then draft his eventual successor next month. Pittsburgh needs to draft a cornerback anyway, so why not have their rookie learn from one of the best corners the league has had over the past dozen years? Haden wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh, and assuming that his contract demands are manageable, the three-time Pro Bowler should get his wish.