The Steelers need help at the tight end position. Here are the pros and cons of drafting a tight as opposed to signing one in free agency.
With the third-worst salary cap situation in the NFL, the Steelers have some big decisions to make. Right now, they don’t even have enough money to sign their 2020 rookie draft class, let alone add talent through free agency.
Though things aren’t looking great for Pittsburgh, there are several cuts the Steelers could make to free up cap space in a hurry. One big question surrounding the organization this offseason is what are they going to do at tight end?
Vance McDonald is set to make $14.2 million over the next two seasons, and the Steelers could opt out of his contract with minimal dead money. Nick Vannett is an unrestricted free agent, while Zach Gentry was too raw to contribute in 2019.
With the tight end position in need of improvement (if not a complete overhaul), there is little doubt the Steelers will reach out for depth at the position this offseason. But the question they need to ask is do they draft a tight end or sign one in free agency.
There are pros and cons to each side:
Drafting a tight end
Tight ends have been perhaps the most commonly mocked position to the Steelers in the second round this offseason, and it’s not hard to see why. A receiving ‘move’ tight end – like Washington’s Hunter Bryant, for example – could step in and help contribute in the passing game from day one.
Though there aren’t any elite tight end prospects this year like T.J. Hockenson from 2019, there are several players who are going to be well worth a mid-second round pick. The Steelers haven’t drafted a tight end higher than the 5th round since taking Matt Spaeth in the 3rd all the way back in 2007.
Because of their numerous roles on offense, tight ends are one of the hardest positions in the league to develop, and it often takes years before they reach their full potential in the NFL. On the other hand, drafting a tight end early means the Steelers would get four cheap years on a rookie contract, and they wouldn’t have to get rid of Vance McDonald unless they needed to spend money elsewhere.
Signing a tight end
Signing a tight end could be effective in its own right, and is perhaps the better alternative for here and now. With Ben Roethlisberger turning 38 years old this offseason, Pittsburgh’s window of opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl is quickly closing.
Adding a veteran free agent could be the way to go. By the time the Steelers are able to develop a rookie tight end, Ben’s career could be over with. However, if they were to sign a player like Hunter Henry, Eric Ebron, or Austin Hooper, it could immediately help improve the NFL’s 30th ranked offense from a season ago.
This issue, obviously, is the money. Free agency is paying great money for good talent, and the Steelers are basically broke. As I mentioned earlier, there are ways of freeing up cap space, but they will likely do so to retain Bud Dupree. Restructuring contracts is always an option as well.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to say if there is a right or wrong decision here. Because of the learning curve at the position, my preference would be to add a starting-caliber tight end via free agency this year. We will find out what the Steelers will do soon.