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5 for Friday: Winning the offseason

The Steelers have been highly active in free agency the past two years, bringing in players such as James Daniels, Mitch Trubisky, Isaac Seulamo, Cole Holcomb, Patrick Peterson, Elandon Roberts, Myles Jack and others in the opening week or so of free agency.

But given the salary cap increasing by $30.6 million this year, the Steelers might actually be less active early in the free agency period in 2024 than they have been.


The cap didn't just go up for the Steelers. It went up for all 32 teams.

"It applies to all of us," said Steelers general manager Omar Khan. "Whatever impact it has on us, it also has on the other 31 teams."

So, when the legal tampering period of free agency begins Monday, followed by the start of free agency on Wednesday, some teams might feel they have a lot more money to throw around. But the Steelers could be inclined to wait things out and see where the bargains might crop up after the big spenders are finished.

That doesn't mean they won't be active. If there's a player they like, they can still get something done quickly. And they'll move to sign their own free agents if they feel the moves are prudent.

But the cap going up 13.61 percent – the fourth-biggest jump since the league implemented a cap in 1993 – typically means that money will burn a hole in the pocket of the teams that have plenty to spend. And those teams will wind up getting into bidding wars with each other, or worse yet, themselves, and wind up overpaying on big-name players early.

That could leave some bargains to be found for teams that are patient.

"It's relative. It applies to everyone," Khan said of the cap going up. "If there's an opportunity to improve the roster, we'll find ways to do things with the cap, and there's some flexibility. And if we can make things better, we will."

There are obviously two ways to do that in the offseason. The first is through free agency. The second is through the draft.

But the Steelers have long operated in a fashion in which they fill out the roster with NFL-capable players at all starting positions going into the draft so that they don't necessarily force themselves to take a player at a particular position based on need.

Given that, there are no glaring needs heading into free agency. The Steelers have starter-capable players at pretty much every position on their roster. If they had to line up and play a game Sunday, they could do so, even at center, where Nick Herbig is currently penciled in as a potential replacement for Mason Cole, who was released recently.

If a player is available who the team feels is an obvious upgrade, the Steelers will make a move, whether it be in free agency or in the draft.

The key to free agency is not necessarily signing the biggest names. It's all about signing the right people at prices that make sense not just for the current year, but in future ones, as well.

That might not be what fans necessarily want. Everyone wants the big-name players. They've heard of them. But more often than not, you're paying for that name on the back of the jersey and what the player has done elsewhere, not what he's going to do for you.

You're not going to hit on all free agents. That's just the reality of the situation. If a player is available, he's often on the market for a variety of reasons. Players become too expensive for what they provide. Their play has started to slip. Or they just don't fit the scheme the team plays either due to a miscalculation in the team's original evaluation or a coaching change. There are other reasons, as well, but those are the main ones.

The big splashes or early signings aren't always the best ones.

One need only look at the Steelers' signing on Seumalo last year – one week into free agency – for proof of that.

It wasn't the biggest deal signed by an offensive lineman. It didn't make the most headlines. But it was as solid a signing as any in the league last offseason.

Winning free agency isn't free. And it seldom - if ever - adds up to winning on its own. It's only a piece of the puzzle.

• A few years ago, Pro Football Reference established its Hall of Fame monitor, which measures the careers of players to estimate his chances of making the Pro Football Hall of Fame using various statistical milestones, Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors and championships.

To be listed on the Hall of Fame monitor, a player must have played 50 or more games post-1955.

Per that metric, former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell, who died last weekend, is the 32nd-best outside linebacker in that time period with a score of 56.60.

Considering the era in which he played, that's not bad. In fact, it's just behind another former Steelers player, Greg Lloyd, who has a score of 56.73.

It's also better than the score of Dave Wilcox (49.88), who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

This is not to suggest the monitor is perfect. With the outside linebackers, where Russell, Wilcox and Lloyd are ranked, sacks are obviously a big deal.

So the highest-rated outside linebackers typically have a bunch of those – or, as in the case of Derrick Brooks and Jack Ham, who are second and third, respectively, on the list behind Lawrence Taylor, they have a bunch of interceptions, forced fumbles and recoveries.

But Russell's placement on the list shows just how good he was. Because his first season came in 1963, his career was winding down when the Steelers started winning big in the mid-'70s. But he went to seven Pro Bowls in his 12 seasons as a starter. And that was when Pro Bowls still actually mattered.

• While we're on the subject of the Hall of Fame monitor, Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt now has 69.10 points on that scale – in seven seasons.

That already puts him ahead of four players currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Cam Heyward currently has 62.95 points, which puts him 22nd on the all-time list of defensive tackles and ahead of three players who have been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Things are a little more cloudy in the secondary, as safeties and cornerbacks are combined into the same category as defensive backs.

But Patrick Peterson has 86.10 points, which places him 23rd on the all-time list.

Minkah Fitzpatrick has 37.05 points, which slots him in at 120 with plenty of time remaining in his career to climb higher.

Comparing players from different eras in the NFL is difficult, but the monitor does give a glimpse of how players stack up statistically against not only their peers, but historically.

• According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the league experimented with optical tracking in two stadiums last season – and in the Super Bowl – for line-to-gain designations.

It would take a vote from owners to approve implementation of optical tracking for the 2024 season, and that's not expected to happen at this year's league meetings, which will be held at the end of this month in Orlando. But it's a step toward replacing the dated aspect of chain gangs tracking yards to gain in the NFL.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

The league is consistently looking at ways to implement technology to improve the game. Many are still in the experimentation phase, but as the technology continues to advance, look for the league to try to figure out ways to use it in the game.

• NFL special teams coordinators met last week in an attempt to come up with rules to help revamp kickoffs after just over 20 percent of kickoffs were returned in 2023, taking one of the most exciting plays out of the game.

The league instituted a fair-catch rule on kickoffs that brought the ball out to the 25 yard line, and nearly 4 out of 5 kickoffs in 2023 resulted in that happening. There was not a single kick return in the Super Bowl.

The league could turn to the rule used in the XFL last season, where the kicker lines up at his team's 30, with the other 10 defenders lining up at the opposing team's 35. The receiving team would then set 10 blockers at their own 30, taking some of the high-speed collisions the league hoped to reduce out of the equation while perhaps getting teams to attempt more returns.

That could be something presented at the league meetings in Orlando.

Other things that could be discussed include outlawing the hip-drop tackle and tweaking onside kick rules.

But don't expect any changes to be made in how teams run quarterbacks sneaks. There doesn't seem to be any movement on allowing offensive players to push the quarterback from behind on those plays.