Top offseason priorities for Bills, Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster talk on the sidelines during a Steelers game in December. Both players missed games in 2019 with injuries, leading to plenty of offensive struggles.

 

When the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills met for their critical Sunday Night Football matchup on Dec. 15, both teams came in with a bundle of momentum and were playing their best football of the year.

The game lived up to its billing in a competitive contest, with the Bills holding on for a 17-10 victory in the game’s final seconds.

Since then, the two teams have gone a combined 0-5, with Buffalo’s loss to the Houston Texans in the AFC Wild Card game on Saturday marking the end of its best season in nearly two decades.

The Steelers weren’t eliminated until the final day of the regular season, though their two losses entering that last Sunday all but sank their postseason hopes.

The rough ending to the season for both teams — though the Bills could certainly be excused for their Week 17 loss to the Jets when the starters were benched — illustrates the work each team has to do in an uber important offseason.

And, for once, the Bills may be better positioned for the long winter months than the Steelers are. Here are a few offseason needs for both teams.

STEELERS

Figuring out QB position for the now, later: The Steelers are in an interesting conundrum at their most important position. Is Ben Roethlisberger, who had serious elbow surgery in September, willing to return to the team and go through another long NFL grind? After all, he’s been the Steelers franchise quarterback since 2004 and has accomplished just about everything he could with the organization. And even if wants to return, will he be the same quarterback that fans and teammates have grown accustomed to? All signs point to the 37-year-old giving it at least another year under center...and the decision seems to rest solely on Big Ben’s shoulders anyways.

While Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges both showed spurts of promise in 2019, neither guy looks ready to stake his claim as a franchise quarterback. If Roethlisberger commits to the organization for this year and 2021 (the final year of his contract) the Steelers will and should embrace him with open arms.

Making matters worse for the Steelers in hopes of finding Roethlisberger’s eventual successor is that they don’t have a first-round pick in 2020, meaning any hopes of drafting a quarterback of the future will have to come in the second round or later. It’s going to be the biggest decision of this offseason and the ones to come for general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin, but there just really isn’t any easy solution. After what the team endured at the position these past few months, it’s a safe bet that there will be at least one new body in the quarterback room for next season.

Solidifying the offensive weapons: No matter who is under center for Pittsburgh in the season opener next year, the supporting cast will most likely undergo a serious makeover this offseason, as well. Starting at the tight end position, both Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett struggled to gain any chemistry with either of the Steelers’ backup quarterbacks. McDonald, the starter and on the field for most of the offensive snaps, hauled in just 38 passes for 273 yards. Simply put: you need more from your starting tight end. Lining up next to McDonald, Pittsburgh’s offensive line is in its own state of flux. For years, it was the backbone of the team but after the departure of Marcus Gilbert last season and then the suspension to Maurkice Pouncey and the underperformance of several other guys up front, it became a unit that struggled to protect the any of the three quarterbacks that lined up under center. Though they do deserve credit for creating holes for the cavalcade of running backs after James Conner’s injury. Pouncey, Alejandro Villaneuva and David DeCastro are all under contract for next season and are amongst three of the best players in their positions in the league. But the team needs depth. The Steelers’ second round selection (50th overall) should very well go towards drafting a lineman to solidify one of the open positions, especially if the team does not bring back Ramon Foster.

This year’s draft is also stocked with some of the best wide receiver prospects in years and lining one up alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson could spark an offense that became horribly stagnant over the last month of the season.

                                                 BILLS

Acquiring a true #1 receiver: First off, this is meant as no disrespect towards John Brown. One of Buffalo’s biggest free agent signings last year hauled in 72 catches for 1,060 yards and six scores and was the Bills’ first 1,000 yard receiver since Sammy Watkins in 2015. Brown’s stellar production — which exceeded expectations — as well as Cole Beasley’s play-making ability in the slot, was a marked improvement from the duo of Zay Jones and Kelvin Benjamin from the year prior. But after Brown and Beasley… well, that’s where the Bills can still drastically improve the position. As much of a fan-favorite as he is, there’s a reason Duke Williams was inactive most of the season. Behind him, Isaiah McKenzie and Robert Foster are nice speed pieces that serve as decoys on offense, but struggle to do much else.

The Bills have the chance to make a big free agent splash at the position with guys like Amari Cooper and A.J. Green entering the offseason as unrestricted free agents. And while both players have battled through injuries over the past few seasons (Green did not play a single snap in 2019) each player would give Josh Allen a true outside threat to accompany Beasley and Brown, as well as to take some of the pressure off of the two veterans.

Now, the Bills have nearly $90 million worth of cap space and would have no problem paying BOTH Green and Cooper, but GM Brandon Beane has taken a cautious — and successful — approach to most free agent signings in his two full offseasons with the team. Instead of acquiring a proven NFL veteran, he could attack the deep wide receiver draft and target Jerry Judy (Alabama), CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma), or Tee Higgins (Clemson) with the 22nd overall pick. All three have tremendous upside and have performed well on the biggest collegiate stages. Beane knows he has to address the position, and just who he brings in will go a long way towards determining Allen’s future in Buffalo.

Figuring out the front seven: With veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander’s retirement following the team’s loss to Houston as well as the upcoming free agency of Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips, Buffalo’s first line of defense could look much different next season. Lawson, on the last year of his rookie contract, had the best season of his career and was a difference-maker on the edge. Phillips, meanwhile, was a beast up the middle and recorded a career-high 9.5 sacks. The problem with that production? Both players are going to expect to get paid, and get paid a lot. Buffalo is already paying Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy and Star Lotulelei over $6 million each, and simply may not want dish out so much cash to the guys up front — even with all that cap space. My guess is that either Murphy or Lotulelei won’t see the start of the season for the team next year and that one of the two — most likely 315-pound Star — will become a cap casualty. The promising Harrison Phillips should fill that role nicely in his return from injury and then the team would be wise to reward either Phillips or Lawson for their big seasons. And, remember, unlike the Steelers, the Bills have a full stockpile of draft picks in 2020. One of them should certainly be used to shore up some holes up front.

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