Welcome To (Bizarro) Steelers Country

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

For reporters covering the Pittsburgh Steelers, the start of the free agency period is usually a slow, low-key affair. The team will usually bring in a few mid-to-lower tier players for depth and maybe a potential starter or two, but never a big name. Typically, Steelers’ beat writers don’t have to bother tracking superstar free agents since the only way they’ll arrive in Pittsburgh is to catch a connecting flight to New York, Washington or Las Vegas. The heavy lifting doesn’t start until the draft, which is where the Steelers typically build their teams.

That all changed this offseason.

In the last couple of weeks, the Steelers have made a number of out-of-character moves:

  • The Steelers signed free agent quarterback Russell Wilson to a veteran minimum deal. Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowler and former Super Bowl winner, is by far the highest profile free agent QB the Steelers have signed in decades — maybe ever. The team is no stranger to signing big names to be backups, like Michael Vick or Byron Leftwich. The Steelers have also signed free agent QBs who ended up starting in Week 1, like Kent Graham in 2000 and Mitch Trubisky in 2022. But those guys were journeymen, not an established star like Wilson who, at one point, was one of the best and highest paid QBs in the league. The only other time I can remember where the Steelers came close to signing a star QB as a free agent was when they talked to Dan Marino in 2000 after the Dolphins chose not to re-sign him. That didn’t happen and we ended up with Graham instead.
  • Steelers GM Omar Khan traded wide receiver Clifford Franklin Diontae Johnson to the Carolina Panthers for the similarly named cornerback Donte Jackson. There was a compelling reason for the trade beyond just messing with reporters and sports anchors. Johnson, the king of dropped passes and negative yards-after-catch, seemed like he was more of a problem than he was worth, what with his lack of effort (epitomized by a play against Cincinnati last season where he just watched and then calmly walked away as his teammates fought to recover a fumble) and problems with teammates. He needed to move on, especially once it was clear he wasn’t going to get a big money extension. As for Jackson, he has had some injury problems, but he provides some much needed speed in the secondary — something that was a problem last year.
  • Khan signed Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker to a three year, $41 million contract ($13.84 million guaranteed). The deal represents the biggest ever given to an external free agent and is a major departure for the Steelers, who tend to look to the draft to find potential star linebackers — the last starting caliber LB I can remember us signing was James Farrior in 2002. We also don’t tend to sign players from division rivals — especially Baltimore. If anything, Steelers players tend to go there at the end of their careers, like Carnell Lake, Mike Wallace, Kordell Stewart or Le’Veon Bell. Or we sign backups like Miles Boykin. This would be like us signing Terrell Suggs after he played alongside Ray Lewis for a couple of seasons. Time will tell if Queen can fill the Ryan Shazier-sized hole that’s been there in our linebacking corps for years now. There are questions as to whether or not Queen is the real deal (he underwhelmed until the Ravens brought in Roquan Smith to play alongside him). But he’s young (24 years old) and some have noted that his skill set does not require an elite player next to him. He might have just needed time to settle in. Either way, it’s a worthwhile gamble for the Steelers — and it also weakens a division rival, so all the better.
  • Quarterback Kenny Pickett was shockingly traded to Philadelphia along with a 2024 fourth round pick for a 2024 third rounder and two seventh rounders in 2025 (essentially, they upgraded their fourth rounder this year). Reportedly, Pickett was told at the end of last season he would compete for the starting job (presumably with another Trubisky-like retread like Ryan Tannehill or someone like that) but then got upset and wanted out when it became clear Wilson would likely start over him. It was an unceremonious end for the University of Pittsburgh alum who was drafted to be Ben Roethlisberger’s heir — the Steelers’ Instagram even framed the trade as “We have acquired three draft picks from the Philadelphia Eagles.” The trade brought an end to Pickett’s tenure, which saw him boast a 14-10 record in two seasons despite putting up meagre passing numbers (4,474 yards, 13 TDs, 13 INTs, 78.8 Rating — during Russell Wilson’s nightmare 2022 season with Denver, he managed 3,524 yards, 16 TDs, 11 INTs, 84.4 Rating). It also seemed out of character for the Steelers, giving up on a guy they thought would be the face of the franchise after only two years when they seemed to have infinite patience with Kordell Stewart and gave Mark Malone four seasons as a starter despite putting up worse numbers than Pickett. Predictably, stories soon leaked out about Pickett’s maturity issues, most notably, team sources confirmed a rumor from late in the season when Pickett reportedly refused to dress as the emergency QB against Seattle because he was upset about having to back up Mason Rudolph. So now he gets to sit on the bench and watch Jalen Hurts, one of the best and highest-paid QBs in the league, do his thing. Enjoy holding that tablet, Kenny.
  • The Pickett trade immediately led to rumors that the Steelers would trade for Chicago QB Justin Fields. And sure enough, the next day Khan sent a sixth rounder in 2025 to Chicago for the talented third-year QB (the pick becomes a fourth rounder if Fields plays 51% of the snaps next year). Fields has struggled in his three years as Bears starter, putting up worse stats than Trubisky did in his Chicago career. Yet there’s plenty to suggest that his problems had more to do with incompetent management and instability in Chicago than his own shortcomings. If anyone can miss with a can’t miss prospect like USC quarterback Caleb Williams, it’s the Bears. The team hasn’t developed a good QB through the draft since Jim Harbaugh. Since then, it’s been a QB graveyard with plenty of signal callers playing for coaches that didn’t really want them. Here’s hoping Fields can rebound in Pittsburgh. Unlike Pickett, Fields is known for being a great teammate (several Chicago players took to social media to wish Fields well, something that didn’t happen with Steelers players and Pickett) and seems okay with sitting behind Wilson for the time being. If he can learn a thing or two from Wilson, then Fields could be a great QB for us going forward.
  • The team is reportedly trying to swing a big trade for San Francisco All Pro wideout (and Mike Tomlin’s long-lost twin) Brandon Aiyuk. The receiver, who seems open to coming to Pittsburgh, has steadily improved since entering the league in 2020 and is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. As such, he won’t come cheap. The Steelers would probably have to surrender a high draft pick to the Niners and then give Aiyuk, who will be playing on his fifth year option, a big money extension that would make him among the highest-paid players on the team. On the one hand, he’s a great route runner and has deep play ability who made the most of his limited targets the last two seasons. And he’s a great blocker, which Pittsburgh loves. On the other hand, like Queen, there’s a valid question as to whether he really is that good or if he benefitted from teams focusing on George Kittle and Deebo Samuel (essentially, being the T.J. Houshmandzadeh to their Chad Ochocinco or the Alvin Harper to their Michael Irvin). If Khan can get this one over the line, the Steelers could have their best young WR tandem since Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. And if he does it would be another move that would be way out of character for the Steelers. The last time we traded for a young Pro Bowl-caliber player who was still on his initial contract and due a massive extension was Jerome Bettis in 1996. That turned out pretty well…

Will these moves make the Steelers into a Super Bowl contender? Some certainly think so while others are a bit more skeptical. Either way, it’s clear that Art Rooney II is tired of going 10-7 or 9-8 and then losing in the first round and has authorized Khan to be more aggressive and depart from established precedent (maybe to deflect from his lack of investment in the team and its facilities?). Time will tell if these aggressive and near-unprecedented pay off — after all, winning free agency is a lot different than winning the Super Bowl.

But hey, it’s been a fun and eventful offseason so far. I’ve done more Google News searches for the Steelers in the last week or so than I have all year. Usually during this time, I’m like most Steelers’ beat writers — tuning out everything until the draft.

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