Latest On J.J. Watt Pursuit

J.J. Watt‘s free agency stay has surpassed the 10-day mark. While the future Hall of Famer’s destination remains unknown, he may be narrowing down his list.

The 10-year veteran defensive end will not join the Steelers, according to John Clayton of ESPN 710 Seattle, who also omitted the Browns from Watt’s finalist list during an appearance on 93.7 The Fan Pittsburgh (Twitter link). Watt is down to the Bills, Packers and Titans, per Clayton, who includes the Raiders as a dark-horse suitor.

Buffalo and Tennessee were two of the initial teams linked to Watt shortly after his Houston release. The Bills also surfaced as a potential finalist last week. Titans GM Jon Robinson and HC Mike Vrabel confirmed discussions with Watt have taken place. Vrabel was on Houston’s staff from 2014-17. The Packers trail both the Bills and Titans in cap space for a potential pursuit of the Wisconsin native, but the team has made moves to free up room in recent days. Green Bay, Buffalo and Tennessee each remain over the projected 2021 cap, so each team still has work to do.

The Raiders have not been shy about pursuing veterans under Jon Gruden, and the team has not truly replaced Khalil Mack since the summer 2018 trade. The franchise has not finished with a scoring defense ranked in the top 16 since 2002. Watt would certainly help on this front, though the Raiders are currently nearly $20MM over the projected cap. That trails the Bills, Packers and Titans.

As of last week, the Browns were still believed to be in the mix for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Cleveland has Buffalo and Tennessee outflanked for cap space and spent much of the 2020 offseason chasing Jadeveon Clowney to team with Myles Garrett. Even if Watt is out of the picture, the Browns are expected to acquire a Garrett pass-rushing wingman this offseason.

Although the Steelers have fellow Watts T.J. and Derek, their cap situation makes adding big-ticket free agents dicey. Pittsburgh is still ironing out details of Ben Roethlisberger‘s impending return, which will require an adjustment from his league-high $41MM-plus cap number.

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Steelers Want Ben Roethlisberger Back?

After Kevin Colbert made comments that put Ben Roethlisberger‘s status with the 2021 Steelers on shaky ground, the future Hall of Fame quarterback has now met with Steelers owner Art Rooney II. That meeting may have gone quite well.

The Steelers want Roethlisberger to return for the ’21 season, according to his agent. Big Ben’s agent, Ryan Tollner, indicated the team has the 17-year veteran in its plans and will contact him soon regarding the QB’s new cap arrangement, per Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL.com (on Twitter). Roethlisberger is set to count more than $41MM against Pittsburgh’s 2021 cap.

It would seem Big Ben’s cap number would need to be addressed before most of the Steelers’ other matters, which do not involve numbers that big. No player’s 2021 cap number surpasses Roethlisberger’s, and it cannot be reduced below $23MM. The Steelers are currently $19MM over the projected 2021 cap, though they have been making moves to get under it. Roethlisberger’s contract represents the top domino in this process.

Although Big Ben threw 33 touchdown passes — his second-most as a pro — he finished 22nd in Total QBR during a Steelers season that tailed off down the stretch. Roethlisberger wrapped his 2020 campaign with a four-interception playoff game but did make a successful return after a severe elbow injury that ended his 2019 season early.

Roethlisberger will turn 39 next week, but the Steelers have yet to make a true investment in Roethlisberger’s long-term successor. And their 12-4 record puts them in the back half of the first round. A Ben return would help stabilize the team’s QB situation for at least one more season.

Fond of restructuring contracts, the Steelers have gotten to work on this front by redoing Cameron Heyward‘s deal. With the cap expected to drop from $198MM to near the $180MM mark, more such moves will need to be made. The Steelers are not expected to use their franchise tag to retain either Bud Dupree or JuJu Smith-Schuster, and other free agents like Mike Hilton, Alejandro Villanueva and James Conner may well depart. Roethlisberger may return for an 18th season, but the Steelers figure to look considerably different after this offseason.

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Kevin Colbert On Contract Situation, Mike Tomlin Status

Coming off an upset playoff loss, the Steelers have one of the NFL’s most difficult cap situations to navigate. Ben Roethlisberger‘s status is uncertain, and the team faces the prospect of losing several longtime starters in free agency.

GM Kevin Colbert is tasked with leading the franchise out of this predicament, but his status is not locked in for the 2021 season. With the Steelers since 2000, the Pittsburgh native’s contract expires in May. The Steelers gave Colbert an extension by this point in the 2020 offseason, having signed him to a one-year deal on Feb. 5, 2020.

Colbert did not provide assurances he will be back with the Steelers in 2021, though he indicated that discussion with ownership would come.

Quite honestly, that’s all I deserve because we have to continue to prove ourselves year after year,” Colbert said of his lack of a long-term contract, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Joe Rutter. “We didn’t do good enough. That is the evaluation I’m making on myself. Art (Rooney II) and I will discuss it at the appropriate time.”

The Steelers hired Colbert after he spent every 1990s season with the Lions. Rumblings of Lions interest in rehiring the 64-year-old GM emerged early this offseason, but nothing developed on that front. The Lions agreed to terms with former Rams college scouting director Brad Holmes to succeed Bob Quinn.

Pittsburgh resides in an unusual place, having overtaken Baltimore in the AFC North but seeing its season end after a disastrous wild-card outing against Cleveland. The Steelers have endured upset losses in their past two playoff games, with the loss to the Jaguars three years ago ending a 13-3 season. And they turned an 11-0 record into a 12-4 finish this past season. The Steelers are more than $30MM over the projected $180MM cap, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Bud Dupree, Alejandro Villanueva, Mike Hilton and James Conner are free agents. Maurkice Pouncey retired last week.

Coach can only do so much with the players he’s given,” Colbert said of the state of the team’s Mike Tomlin-led roster. “I can provide him with what I think are the right fits. When it works, great. When it doesn’t, we both know we weren’t good enough.”

Tomlin is signed through the 2021 season, and the Steelers have a team option on their coach for the ’22 season. Tomlin has coached the Steelers for 14 seasons. He is one season away from matching Bill Cowher and becoming the third straight Steelers coach to enjoy a 15-year tenure. Tomlin, Cowher and Chuck Noll have been the franchise’s only coaches since 1969.

The Steelers have been to the playoffs eight times under Tomlin, winning Super Bowl XLIII and losing in Super Bowl XLV. But they have only advanced to the AFC championship game once in the past 10 seasons, marking a downturn for the six-time Super Bowl-winning franchise.

Mike Tomlin has done so much more good in this league than not good,” Colbert said. “Mike is an excellent NFL head coach. He’s won a Super Bowl. He’s been to two. Have we had the success we wanted to have recently? No, that’s a collective ‘we.’ We’ll just continue to work to make sure (a downward trend) doesn’t happen.”

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