Steelers could make their first monumental free agent signing in 2023

Kansas City Chiefs tackle Orlando Brown (57). Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kansas City Chiefs tackle Orlando Brown (57). Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Under Kevin Colbert, the Steelers weren’t big spenders in free agency. However, new general manager, Omar Khan, could change that in 2023.

I expect Omar Khan — the Pittsburgh Steelers new general manager — to be very much like Kevin Colbert in the way that he does business. I’m not sure if Art Rooney II would have signed off on hiring him if he thought otherwise.

For over the past two decades, Colbert has been one of the most stable and highly-touted general managers in the NFL for a reason. Some of his biggest accomplishments include trading up for a legendary safety in Troy Polamalu, drafting a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, and building a two-time Super Bowl-winning roster through the NFL Draft.

While Khan certainly isn’t guaranteed to see the same success, I would have to imagine that Colbert’s understudy is going to try to operate in a very similar fashion. The Steelers have always been a team that has focused on building their roster through the draft and retaining their own players. They rarely spend big in free agency, and hardly ever come away with superstars from outside the organization.

That could change in 2023. This isn’t necessarily because of a difference in philosophy from Colbert to Kahn; rather a difference in the amount of money to work with.

Because Colbert has had a star quarterback under a big contract since 2008, his wiggle room in free agent spending has been minimal. It’s even smaller when you consider all of the veterans he was able to retain on second and third contracts.

How Steelers could spend big on a 2023 free agent

This isn’t the case for Khan. Currently, the Steelers GM has just three big names under sizable contracts: T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Cameron Heyward. While players like Myles Jack and Mitch Trubisky, and Chukwuma Okorafor each have cap numbers of over $10 million for the 2023 season, all three of these are candidates to be cut if they don’t have good seasons this year. By doing so, the team could save an additional $23 million, via Over the Cap.

Even if the Steelers choose to hang onto each of these players, they are set to have roughly $37 million in effective cap space next season. A simple restructure could free up even more.

Obviously, getting a deal done with Diontae Johnson could change this in a hurry. However, if the Steelers do get something worked out, it’s likely that the team will try to keep his first-year cap hit very low (as they typically do).

Because of the small number of veterans on the roster on second contracts and because the Steelers have a quarterback in Kenny Pickett on a cheap rookie deal, they could go after a high-priority free agent for the first time in forever — something that is pretty out of character for this team.

Pittsburgh would have the funds to sign a guy like OT Orlando Brown, S Jessie Bates, EDGE Bradley Chubb, or OG Quenton Nelson — assuming their respective teams even let them hit the market (some won’t).

Obviously, having money doesn’t mean that this is the way that Pittsburgh will choose to spend it. It seems more likely that they will piece out their money to capable veterans instead of spending big on a star player — much like they did during the 2022 offseason.

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Still, the Steelers approach during the 2023 free agency period is going to be very interesting. They should have the funds to make a monumental free agent signing, but it would be very out of character to do so. Maybe Khan’s philosophy will be different.