Pittsburgh Steelers NFL offseason preview: Replacing Ben Roethlisberger is the priority

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger’s final season as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback wasn’t the triumphant Super Bowl run the 18-year veteran hoped, but the Steelers made the playoffs despite a roller-coaster season. While the Steelers have a significant hole to fill at quarterback, the future is bright for young stars like running back Najee Harris and NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, who tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record with 22.5.

In addition to a new quarterback, the Steelers will have changes at defensive coordinator and general manager, along with a handful of assistant positions. Former secondary coach Teryl Austin is taking over for retired defensive coordinator Keith Butler, while the Steelers are conducting a search for the next general manager to succeed Kevin Colbert after the 2022 NFL draft.

The Steelers don’t often have rebuilding seasons, but the 2022 campaign could be the first in a long time. The direction the Steelers take in the offseason will determine whether they can compete in a stacked division.

Projected salary-cap space: $33 million

Top free agents: CB Joe Haden, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, S Terrell Edmunds, WR James Washington, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, CB Ahkello Witherspoon

Potential cut candidates: The Steelers have need for depth at inside linebacker and offensive tackle, but ILB Joe Schobert and OT Zach Banner are overpriced options. Banner, a fan favorite, was primed to take over a tackle job and leadership duties on the offensive line entering 2021, but he never cracked the starting lineup after a prolonged rehab from a 2020 ACL tear and appeared in seven games. Banner has one year left on his two-year deal, and cutting him would save $5 million against the cap with $1.6 million in dead money. Cutting him could give the Steelers money to bring back free-agent tackle Chukwuma Okorafor. Meanwhile, Schobert has a $9.7 million cap hit in 2022. Cutting him saves $7.8 million against the cap this year, $9.8 million in 2023 and $10.7 million in 2024. And, keep an eye on defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who missed the 2021 season after the death of his brother and a knee surgery. Parting ways with Tuitt after June 1 saves $9 million against the cap, but it leaves $4.9 million in dead money.

The big question: Who will be the Steelers’ next starting quarterback? The Steelers’ path to finding their next signal-caller isn’t clear-cut. They have in-house options in Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins, but they could also opt to draft a rookie, sign a midlevel veteran or make a splash with a big name in a trade or free agency. The Steelers have other glaring needs to address, like the offensive line and cornerback, but the quarterback decision will dictate the rest of the offseason and 2022 campaign.

Best-case offseason scenario: The Steelers find the next franchise quarterback and shore up the offensive line with turnkey talent. In a perfect world, the quarterback would be a Day 1 starter, but even landing a first-round quarterback to learn behind Rudolph or another veteran for 2022 would be a success. A big, though increasingly unlikely, win would be re-signing Smith-Schuster. Defensively, the Steelers re-sign a combination of Edmunds, Haden and Witherspoon and get safety Minkah Fitzpatrick’s deal done during training camp.

Worst-case offseason scenario: The Steelers hold the status quo across the board. To be competitive in the AFC North -- and the AFC as a whole -- the Steelers need some kind of splash move to contend in a division that has the Super Bowl runner-up in Cincinnati. Rolling with Haskins, Rudolph and either a Day 2 quarterback or midlevel free agent for a season could allow the Steelers to wait until a more talented 2023 draft class to find their next quarterback. But that would be kicking the quarterback can down the road and settling for a years-long rebuild, something the Steelers, or their fans, haven’t experienced in nearly two decades.

Early look at the NFL draft, from ESPN analyst Jordan Reid: With question marks under center for the first time in nearly two decades, the heir apparent to Roethlisberger remains the focal point of the team's offseason. That could come via free agency or via trade, but keep an eye on their pick as well. If they find their quarterback elsewhere, they could address offensive tackle in the draft.

Top needs: QB, OL, CB

Top pick: No. 20