When it comes to Vegas the national media, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the undisputed favorites to win the AFC North in 2017. After a 2016 season in which the Steelers won the division, and with an impressive arsenal of offensive talent, it’s not all that hard to see why. But, the Cincinnati Bengals will surely be looking for a bounce-back season and will hope to bring the AFC North crown back to the Queen City in 2017.
We sat down with Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain to learn about the Steelers’ offseason and what to truly expect from Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and company in 2017. First up, we have some basic info on the Steelers’ offseason and below that is a Q&A with more details from Jeff.
Notable free agent additions: CB Coty Sensabaugh, DL Tyson Alualu, RB/KR Knile Davis, WR Justin Hunter
The Steelers followed their usual guide to success by not being major players in free agency, but the moves they made filled needed depth positions in the lineup. Steelers fans are constantly disappointed with their lack of movement in free agency, but the organization has never strayed from their plan of building from within, and it clearly works.
Notable free agent departures: LB Lawrence Timmons, WR Markus Wheaton, OLB Jarvis Jones
Of these players, the biggest hit to the team was the loss of Timmons. Wheaton had shown flashes of talent, but struggled to stay on the field, and Jarvis Jones might be one of the worst first round picks in the Kevin Colbert’s time as General Manager. But, Timmons was the iron man on the inside of the defense, and will be missed for a lot of reasons. However, the Steelers simply couldn’t match the money Timmons was offered by Miami.
Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies: T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cameron Sutton, James Conner
Like in 2016, the Steelers will hope they get contributions from their rookies, but hopefully not the same amount of contributions. Last year it was Artie Burns, Javon Hargrave and Sean Davis who all turned into starters by season’s end, but this year it seems the rookies will be more role players than every down starters, barring injury.
Biggest offseason addition: The return of wide receiver Martavis Bryant off suspension is the biggest addition. After missing all of 2016, during which the Steelers never filled the No. 2 WR position, Bryant will be a welcomed, and huge, piece to the Steelers’ offensive puzzle.
Biggest storyline for training camp: Le’Veon Bell’s contract situation. While the RB has yet to sign his franchise tag, he’s also holding out during training camp, despite not being able to sign a long-term deal at this point in the year.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: The wide receiver and cornerback training camp battles. Both positions are chalk full of talent, and the two positions will eventually have to make some tough decisions.
Notable injuries heading into training camp: Le’Veon Bell’s groin, Cameron Heyward coming off a torn pectoral
Cincy Jungle: What were the best parts of the Steelers' offseason?
Jeff Hartman: The biggest part of the Steelers offseason has been the addition of a proven player, and that would be Martavis Bryant. Bryant brings a very unique dynamic to the team, and with him the offense is as explosive as any in the NFL. He makes it extremely difficult on opposing defenses, considering you can't push coverage to Bryant AND Antonio Brown without leaving yourself vulnerable.
CJ: What were the worst parts of the offseason?
JH: The worst part of the offseason would be a toss up between three things: The death of team president Dan Rooney, the departure of Lawrence Timmons and the failure to get a contract done with Le'Veon Bell prior to the 2017 season. Rooney's death was much more than just a team figurehead passing away, it was the death of one of the team's patriarchs. His loss, although it could energize the team to win for him, threw a very dark shadow over the organization for most of the offseason. Timmons, Mike Tomlin's first draft pick as head coach, will be missed for his "all business" attitude. Timmons just did his job and shut up. Combine that with his crazy tackle numbers and the Steelers have a big hole to fill. As for Bell's contract, although it isn't the end of the world, the team and their most versatile offensive player will now be in a year-in-year-out contract struggle.
CJ: What do you think of your draft class?
JH: I liked the draft class, especially the first four picks. The team addressed needs, and, for the second straight year, was able to find players who could step in and play as rookies. They had three rookie starters on defense in 2016, and could have some more in 2017 with T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cameron Sutton and James Conner.
CJ: What are your expectations for Ben Roethlisberger this year?
JH: I think Roethlisberger will be much better this year than last year. He didn't have a horrible season in 2016, but he wasn't as precise as he has been at other points in his career. Roethlisberger rarely has back-to-back down seasons, so I think 2017 will be a better year for No. 7, especially with all his weapons back at his disposal.
CJ: What's your expectation for how the team will perform as a whole? Better or worse than 2016?
JH: The Steelers won the AFC North last year, and I see that happening again, but their overall record could improve. If the Steelers' defense can take another step forward, there is no reason the team couldn't end the year with a 12-4, or even 13-3 record.
CJ: What's the strongest position group on the roster?
JH: With Bryant, I would have to say wide receiver. The Steelers will deploy Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates this year. They are stacked at receiver, to the point there will be a few who are cut who are worthy of making an NFL roster in 2017.
CJ: How about weakest position group?
JH: I would have to say inside linebacker. While the team has wide receivers everywhere, they hardly have any inside linebackers, not named Ryan Shazier, with a ton of NFL experience. This is why the team was actively pursuing Patriots' ILB Dont'a Hightower this offseason. With Timmons gone, the team is extremely thin at the inside linebacker position heading into the regular season.
CJ: What's your biggest concern when it comes to the Bengals?
JH: With the Bengals it is always two players who concern me: A.J. Green for his ridiculous play making ability, and Vontaze Burfict for how the game will be played. The Steelers and Bengals rivalry has gone from heated to blood thirsty, and although 2016 was a step in the right direction, honest fans know it only takes one misstep to get back to the point where players are out there trying to injure the opposition.