Coaches and executives open up about what the Pittsburgh Steelers are getting in Mitchell Trubisky, DeShaun Watson’s best fits, plus making sense of the insane receiver market
Pittsburgh didn’t waste any time.
The Steelers saw Aaron Rodgers stay in Green Bay, and an hour later, the Seattle Seahawks trade Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos. Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert understood the market was quickly getting thin.
Enter Mitchell Trubisky, believed entering free agency to be the most-coveted quarterback hitting the market this offseason. Within 54 minutes of the league’s legal tampering period beginning, the Steelers agreed to a two-year pact with Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
But, what are the Steelers, who are turning the page from future Hall-of-Famer Ben Roethlisberger to Trubisky getting in the 27-year-old with a 29-21 career record as a starter?
“Mitch is a really solid player,” one of Trubisky’s former coordinators tells FanSided, on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “He may struggle on third down and in the red zone with tight-window throws, but he’s a guy who works his ass off.
“Honestly, Mitch is one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached. Needs the right system around him.”
The Steelers certainly give Trubisky a far superior support system to what he had around him during his four seasons in Chicago.
Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool both have considerable upside. Najee Harris rushed for 1,200 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, while fellow rookie, tight end Pat Freiermuth, caught seven touchdown passes in 2021.
Pittsburgh clearly prioritized dropping Trubisky into a situation that offered consistency both in terms of head coach Mike Tomlin and the offensive scheme the Steelers have deployed over the past decade.
The Steelers commitment wasn’t a tacit one in Trubisky, a two-year pact worth upwards of $27 million if he reaches incentives, with a floor of $14.25 million.
Trubisky’s signing was met with skepticism from Steelers fans, and even some analysts alike.
However, there’s a sense inside the league that a career renaissance could be arriving for Trubisky, who had several suitors before choosing the Steelers and a chance to start this fall.
“When you step back and realize that Mitchell Trubisky had a winning record as a starter with the Bears,” an NFL offensive coach tells FanSided. “With not a lot of talent around him, he made a Pro Bowl, made it to the playoffs two times in four years, came back and won like six games in a row when the Bears snuck in the postseason, so, I can see where that narrative plays into Mitch’s favor.”
In addition to the perception that Trubisky has plenty of upside, he also benefitted from being in a situation last season with the Buffalo Bills where he could hold a clipboard and learn from the likes of Brian Daboll and watch one of the game’s premier passers every day, in Josh Allen.
“To be in the same room with guys who are great quarterbacks certainly helps to know what the standard is,” former NFL quarterback and current analyst for The Athletic, Sage Rosenfels tells FanSided. “When you’re just throwing routes, what’s the standard that a great player has to play at for your team to be successful.
“For me, it was unbelievable to watch Brett Favre and Eli Manning do that [in my career], because then you say to yourself ‘wow, that’s what an elite quarterback looks like,’ Mitch had that last year with Josh Allen.”
Trubisky now offers the Steelers the kind of multi-faceted quarterback who just might elevate a supporting cast that started the 2020 campaign 11-0. Additionally, their top two receivers combined for 2,021 yards last season, despite Roethlisberger’s limitations as a deep-ball thrower.
“The Steelers now get to take the best of what works in their system and adjust it to what Mitch does best,” an NFC executive tells FanSided. “Mitch is a totally different style of quarterback than Ben was. He is much more mobile than Ben, and has a much stronger arm right now than Ben did at the end.”
Pittsburgh acted aggressively to get Trubisky, there’s no doubt.
But time will tell if there’s a renaissance in the making to vault the Steelers past Joe Burrow’s Bengals and Lamar Jackson’s Ravens, or if the skepticism that greeted his arrival in the Steel City was justified.
Deshaun Watson sweepstakes shifts into overdrive
Friday’s decision by a Harris County, Texas grand jury not to indict Deshaun Watson criminally on nine complaints sent shockwaves through the NFL. Watson, who still faces 22 civil suits for sexual harassment and assault, is suddenly making visits and being courted. It’s an uncomfortable situation, but an unfolding one nonetheless.
Watson, 26, is now available with four years remaining of team control after throwing for a league-best 4,823 yards along with 33 touchdowns against seven interceptions in 2020. However, after being benched all of 2021 while his legal situation played out, Watson and the Texans are headed for an imminent split.
Obviously Watson’s off-field situation make him a tough sell for some owners, while others will overlook the civil cases to upgrade at quarterback.
Presuming Watson is available at some point in 2022 — and there’s a decent chance he’ll face some sort of suspension from the NFL for what sources believe could be eight or even 12 games — his age and skill-set could significantly lift a franchise’s championship aspirations.
“The Browns would trade the world in half a second for Deshaun Watson and to win now,” an AFC coach tells FanSided. “That organization isn’t committed to the long-term.”
The former No. 12 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Watson has a full no-trade clause. Likewise, it would seem Texans general manager Nick Caserio is intent on trading Watson to the NFC.
So, who might be the best fit for Watson? FanSided spoke to several coaches, scouts, and evaluators to get their thoughts.
“Cleveland has the best roster,” an NFC head coach tells FanSided. “None of the teams he has been linked to runs an offense that’s best suited for him, but they just added Amari Cooper, so they have the running game and now the weapons.”
For the Browns to add Watson, though, they’ll need to clear multiple hurdles.
The highest mountain to climb might be convincing Caserio to trade Watson within the conference. Such a deal would add yet another roadblock to the Texans’ possible road to a Super Bowl that already includes Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, and now Russell Wilson.
Secondly, Cleveland would need to move off Baker Mayfield, which it appears it’s more than willing to explore. Then there’s the question of whether Watson would even waive his no-trade to go to Cleveland.
Trading Watson to the NFC is a far more palatable option for Caserio and Houston, and both the Saints and Carolina Panthers’ interest is legitimate.
Right now, New Orleans is reportedly the favorite, with some reports stating Carolina believes the Saints are going to eventually land Watson. If so, New Orleans will need to do more cap gymnastics and put some offensive talent around him, with only receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara of note.
But, might a third NFC South team be lurking?
“Atlanta might be ideal for everyone,” an AFC personnel director tells FanSided. “It’s his hometown, so it would be a much easier sell to a more supportive fanbase. And, they have Kyle Pitts, who is a game-changing playmaker.”
But in a world where Caserio and the Texans’ asking price is three first-round picks in addition to young players, it’s equally difficult to envision this deal getting done without Kyle Pitts’ inclusion.
Which could make Carolina, armed with a bevy of young, cheap talent and draft picks, Watson’s eventual home.
“Remember, the Panthers backed off last year for fear of fan retaliation with his charges looming,” the AFC coach says. “Now it’s doable for them to pull this off. They have some nice pieces in place with a good defense and a couple of good, young wide receivers.”
“He’d be a great fit anywhere,” an NFL executive tells FanSided. “That dude’s a stud quarterback.”
"“I’m a free agent. If you want me, come get me.”"
– Indianapolis Colts veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton, via The Indianapolis Star
The wide receiver market has been turned upside down in recent days, more on that below (Final thought), but Hilton would be a fascinating addition either for a contender or a team with a young receiving corps looking to add veteran leadership at the position.
Head and neck injuries limited Hilton last season, but the 32-year-old is now healthy and still averaged 14.4 yards per reception and caught three touchdowns last season.
Hilton enters the 2022 campaign seventh among active receivers in receiving yards, and has been a consistent big-play threat who also has the versatility to line up outside as well as smoothly operate from the slot.
As the big-name receivers such as Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, and JuJu Smith-Schuster go off the board and find homes in free agency, Hilton could sneakily be a productive receiver with upside who’s flying under the radar in March but winds up making a big impact come September.
Few teams have been more aggressive during the NFL’s pre-free agency negotiating window than the Jacksonville Jaguars.
As we reported Friday, the Jaguars planned to be aggressive in free agency and shop at the top of the offensive end defensive line markets.
General manager Trent Baalke, new head coach Doug Pederson and the Jaguars followed through by inking All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff to a three-year pact that includes $30 million fully guaranteed to protect Trevor Lawrence and defensive tackle Foley Fatuaksi to a $45 million deal to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
But those moves didn’t break the internet. Or stall the market.
That happened when Jacksonville signed slot receiver Christian Kirk to an $84 million deal over four years, and then wideout Zay Jones $30 million over the next three seasons.
“They’re going to create a lot more arguments than there would have been otherwise,” former Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns President and CEO Joe Banner tells FanSided.
Kirk’s deal was reported hours after the Green Bay Packers made what sources tell FanSided was “a substantial” offer to franchise-tagged receiver Davante Adams Monday, which to date has gone unsigned.
Banner, now part of The 33rd Team football thinktank, believes the divide between how teams and agents view the position may have just widened.
“Agents always want to use the comps that they consider most favorable to them, and the teams want to use the comps that are most favorable to them,” Banner explains. “It complicates the process when you have what I call, an outlier, like Christian Kirk. I think he’s a good player, he’s a really good guy, a hard worker, and a good player, but they paid him as if he were a lot more than that. It certainly is going to complicate the other negotiations.”
The Jaguars believe Kirk, who caught a career-high 77 passes for 982 yards and five touchdowns at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, can be Trevor Lawrence’s new favorite game-altering target. But, there are already questions of whether he will prove worthy of the contract Jacksonville just signed him to.
“He’s a really nice slot receiver,” an AFC scout tells FanSided. “But, can he play outside? That’s a lot of money for an undersized slot guy. He’s a great person, and I’m glad he got paid, but that seems like a rich, rich deal.”
Some inside the league are already seeing the impacts of Kirk and Jones’ contracts. Especially as bigger named, more productive receivers like Allen Robinson, Juju Smith-Schuster, and recently-released Jarvis Landry remain unsigned.
“Jacksonville throwing a lot of money around was really nice to see,” one prominent agent who represents multiple wide receivers tells FanSided. “But, whether it helps other receivers remains to be seen. It certainly will if 31 other teams are willing to pay that number, that’s for sure.”
Banner cautions teams waiting for the market to settle and correct itself if they truly covet one of the top receivers still available.
“This can’t slow things down much,” Banner says. “Because you never know when someone swoops in and takes your guy or someone may be fooled by the Jacksonville prices into making an offer that you may consider ‘unreasonably high,’ but I think this will cause a pause, which is why some of these guys didn’t sign on day one or two [of the negotiating window].”
There’s little doubt that Kirk and Jones’ deals complicated the negotiations with other free-agent receivers and their teams this week.
But, the white whale now becomes whether Kirk and Jones’ contracts are the outliers, or if teams now must recalibrate how they view and ultimately value the receiver position.
“If nobody else replicates treating the market value the way the Jaguars did, it will become kind of an asterisk,” Banner says. “But, all you need is maybe one or two more deals where they, in fact, used Kirk as a comp, and it will change the whole market.”