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Tomlin likes competition free agency has added

PHOENIX – The Steelers have been quite busy during the offseason, making several moves in free agency for the second consecutive season.

Given the fact they failed to make the playoffs in 2022, it's not unreasonable to expect that to happen. The team most certainly wasn't going to stand pat.

But what was surprising is that one year after adding center Mason Cole and guard James Daniels as free agents while re-signing right tackle Chuks Okorafor, the Steelers again dipped into the pool of available players on the offensive line adding Isaac Seumalu, Nate Herbig and Le'Raven Clark.

The reason for that, according to Mike Tomlin, was because the Steelers are not naive to the fact it would be unreasonable to expect to have the same starting five in all 17 games again in 2023 as they did in 2022.

"We just thought the more starter-capable and starting experience-like guys, we could add to the group we had an opportunity to create competition and raise our floor," Tomlin said Sunday at the league meetings here in Phoenix. "I think we were fortunate last year. The five primary starters made every football game, so our depth was not challenged. 

"We just felt like it was appropriate to create competition and you do that with capable people, specifically guys who are capable with experience. We'll get those guys in a competitive camp situation and come up with the best five."

With the additions of Seumalo, Herbig and Clark, added to a line that already had holdovers in Okorafor and Dan Moore at tackle, and Cole, Daniels and Kevin Dotson on the interior, the Steelers certainly have that.

Seumalo and Clark both have experience playing tackle, Seumalo at right and Clark on both sides. And Seumalo and Herbig both have experience at center, while all three newcomers also have lined up at guard in the NFL.

The Steelers ran the ball very effectively in the second half of the 2022 season, averaging nearly 150 yards per game on the ground as they went 7-2 to rebound from a 2-6 start.

That also helped ease some of the pressure on rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. And it's not unreasonable to expect the Steelers to continue to try to make life easier for their young quarterback in his second season – hence the signings of more offensive linemen.

"A good running game aids the quarterback, particularly a young quarterback," Tomlin said. "I don't think we were bashful about our intentions there. And we won't be moving forward."

Their moves in free agency certainly affirm that.

The team also wasn't bashful when it came to rebuilding its inside linebacker position.

Robert Spillane, Devin Bush and Myles Jack were the top three plates in terms of snaps there last season. But Spillane and Bush left as free agents, while Jack was released two weeks ago at the start of free agency.

The Steelers moved quickly to sign veterans Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts as replacements to join holdover Mark Robinson, a seventh-round draft pick in 2022 who started two games late in the season.

Holcomb had been a four-year starter for the Commanders, while Roberts had been a starter in his previous four seasons with the Patriots and three with the Dolphins.

It's not a change in philosophy for the Steelers at inside linebacker. It was simply an attempt to get better play there.

"It is a veteran-guys-that-are-capable plan," Tomlin said. "E Rob, we are highly familiar with since he came out of (the University of) Houston. We were down there at his pro day and just liked his play demeanor. And that has not changed over the seven years that has been his career. So we're glad to add him into the fold. And Holcomb is an athletic guy. He can run. He can do a lot of things. He's put together nice body work in Washington."

Those weren't the lone outside free agent moves made this offseason, as veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson was signed to help ease the loss of Cameron Sutton, who signed with the Lions.

Tomlin has known Peterson, the cousin of former Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden, since he was a teenager. And he compared the signing of the veteran, eight-time Pro Bowl and three-time first-team All-Pro, to another signing the Steelers made recently, that of veteran cornerback Joe Haden.

"The intangible quality, his football character, his love and passion for the game," Tomlin said of what made Peterson attractive. "I think that is something to be learned from. Pat obviously is a guy that brings up and beyond his resume and play came from playmaking capabilities, which is an asset to football teams. When guys are living examples of what to do, how to go about this professional football business, I just think we all benefit from that and he is that."

And there is still more work to be done. Tomlin noted that free agency isn't done yet and the Steelers also will continue to add players in the draft at the end of April, as well.

"For us, we don't view free agency and the draft any different," Tomlin said. "We've got two major ways of improving our team and acquiring talent, and we respect both components. We utilize information for one as it pertains to the other."

• Tomlin also said that there is an expectation the team could see an even better version of defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, whom the Steelers re-signed to a three-year contract.

Ogunjobi, signed just before training camp last year, was coming off a foot surgery and also dealt with a toe injury last season. Despite that, he started 16 games, making 48 tackles with 1.5 sacks.

His sack total was a decline from the career-high seven he had in 2021 for the Bengals.

"I don't believe that you did," Tomlin said when asked if fans had seen Ogunjobi's best play in 2022. "I think that's the perspective that I have. I think that's the perspective that he has. And I think that makes both of us excited about his return and what that might mean. I just think that there's benefit in him being here and knowing what to expect and having been a lap around the track and to go through an offseason where he's not rehabilitating coming off of a surgery as exciting prospects, as well."

• One of the major topics at these meetings and among the members of the Competition Committee on which Tomlin sits are changes to kickoffs and other special teams plays.

Two rules that are among those to be voted on include ball placement following touchbacks and fair catches.

One proposal would place the ball at the 25-yard following a touchback on a punt, while another would place the ball at the 25 if there is a fair catch on a free kick that is fielded inside the receiving team's 25-yard line."I think there's been a lot of discussions, and I've learned and I've been around long enough never to try to anticipate how the membership might view things particularly after discussion," Tomlin said. "But there have been a number of discussions about special teams plays be they kickoffs or punts. And all of those discussions centered around reducing the number of injuries whether it's the total number or whether it's the injury rate."

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