3 players Steelers regret letting walk in free agency

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs
AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs / Dilip Vishwanat/GettyImages

The Steelers have been known for making smart roster decisions when it comes to who to keep and who to let walk during free agency. Most of the time, the right decision is made and the Steelers look like geniuses. However, there are exceptions.

Because of the NFL salary cap, the Steelers literally can't afford to keep everyone. Decisions have had to be made about who to let walk out the door and these 3 players are making the Steelers regret that decision.

1. Javon Hargrave, DT

Hargrave was drafted by the Steelers in the third round of the 2016 draft out of South Carolina State. He quickly became a fan favorite due to his relentless work effort and continued improvement over his tenure in Pittsburgh.

During his four years in the Steel City, Hargrave amassed 14.5 sacks, 22 TFL and 22 QB hits. During the 2020 offseason, Hargrave signed a 3 year $39 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

In his four years since leaving Pittsburgh (3 with the Eagles and 1 with the 49ers), Hargrave put up 29 sacks, 32 TFL, and 56 QB hits. He was named a pro bowler in 2021 and 2023. With the Steelers thin depth on the defensive line and Hargrave's leap into stardom recently there's no doubt the Steelers regret letting him walk in 2020.

2. Mike Hilton, CB

One year after letting Hargrave walk, the Steelers had to watch another key defensive player leave when Mike Hilton signed a 4 year $24 contract with the Cincinnati Bengals. Since Hilton's departure 3 years ago, the Steelers have been searching for a slot corner replacement to no avail.

Arthur Maulet, James Pierre, and Chandon Sullivan have all been brought in over the past few years to try and replicate Hilton's production. It hasn't worked. Hilton was a special player in Pittsburgh, nagging 7 interceptions, 9.5 sacks, and 30 TFL during his four year stint in Pittsburgh.

Hilton's blend of IG, tackling, and no fear made him the perfect slot corner in Pittsburgh and he's fit in perfectly in Cincinnati. He was a key cog on the Bengals defense who helped their run to the Super Bowl in 2022. Letting Hilton walk was one thing for the Steelers. Letting him go to a division rival stings even more.

With the lack of production from their slot corners the past few years and Hilton's performance with the Bengals, there's no doubt the Steelers regret letting Hilton walk out of Pittsburgh without a new contract.

3. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR

Smith-Schuster's time in Pittsburgh was filled with a lot of ups and downs. His first two seasons were magical, highlighted by a 111 reception, 1426 yard season in 2018. His later years in Pittsburgh were filled with meddling quarterback play, underperformance and off the field distractions. In March of 2022, Smith-Schuster signed a 1 year, $10.17 contract with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Smith-Schuster had a decent 2022 season in Kansas City, including being a key weapon for Patrick Mahomes en rout to a Super Bowl title in 2023. He then signed with the New England Patriots, where he battled injuries and bad quarterback play during a disappointing season. So why would the Steelers regret letting him walk?

The Steelers wide receiver room has been very thin the last 2 seasons since JuJu left town. Diontae Johnson was up and down, George Pickens showed flashes but not consistency, and numerous WR3 options came and went with little success. Smith-Schuster could've been had on the cheap and would've been a reliable option for the various quarterbacks who have taken snaps recently.

He's not a superstar, but Smith-Schuster is a solid receiver and the Steelers could've used him the past few seasons.