Steelers expect younger ’19 team
PITTSBURGH — The “Killer Bs” era is officially over in Pittsburgh. Antonio Brown is an Oakland Raider. Le’Veon Bell is a New York Jet, and Ben Roethlisberger will be part of a roster that will be considerably younger in 2019 thanks to an influx of draft picks.
The Steelers began free agency by completing a deal that sent Brown, a four-time All-Pro wide receiver, to Oakland in exchange for a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick in next month’s draft, a quiet end to more than two months of drama in which Brown made it publicly know he’d rather continue his career elsewhere than return to Pittsburgh in 2019.
The Raiders sent the 66th and 141st overall selections to the Steelers for Brown.
“We believe the compensation, which now gives us four picks in the first 83 selections and 10 overall in the upcoming draft, can benefit our efforts to improve our team in 2019 and beyond,” Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement. “Antonio remains one of the best players in the National Football League, but as we believe, this move was in the best interest of the Pittsburgh Steelers. We wish Antonio all the best in the rest of his career.”
Brown’s departure leaves the Steelers thin at wide receiver. JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a full-blown star in 2018 — hauling in 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns while earning a spot in the Pro Bowl — but James Washington was only sporadically effective as a rookie.
Bell, who sat out last season after declining to sign his $14.5 franchise tender, agreed to a four-year deal with the New York Jets. James Conner made the Pro Bowl in Bell’s absence and Jaylen Samuels showed promise as a rookie. The Steelers will receive a compensatory selection for Bell in 2020.
By then the mild rebuild the team is planning following the departure of their two stars should be well underway. The process began on the opening day of free agency when they shored up their uneven secondary by signing former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson to a three-year deal worth $25.5 million.
The Steelers entered the offseason prioritizing defensive players who could create takeaways after they produced just 15 turnovers in 2018. The 26-year-old Nelson had four interceptions with the Chiefs last season, matching the entire total of Pittsburgh’s secondary.
Nelson will line up across from veteran Joe Haden, pushing former first-round pick Artie Burns into a reserve role and putting his long-term future with the team in doubt. Burns, Pittsburgh’s top selection in the 2016 draft, struggled to stay in the lineup last season.
Kansas City selected the 5-foot-11, 194-pound Nelson in the third round of the 2015 draft. He played in 52 games, including 38 starts, across four seasons with the Chiefs.
“I’m all smiles right now can’t be happier they got a straight worker,” Nelson tweeted shortly after agreeing to terms.
Pittsburgh re-signed linebacker Anthony Chickillo to a two-year deal worth $8 million. Chickillo, a sixth-round pick in the 2015 draft, has seven career sacks and has carved a niche as a valuable contributor on special teams. The Steelers also re-signed punter Jordan Berry to a two-year deal. Berry averaged 43.7 yards per kick in 2018, right in line with his career average of 43.8.
While Pittsburgh signed center Maurkice Pouncey and guard Ramon Foster to new deals last week, the Steelers sent right tackle Marcus Gilbert to Arizona in exchange for a sixth-round pick. Gilbert, a second-round choice in 2011, started 87 games for the Steelers, most of them at right tackle. He ran into injury trouble in each of the last two seasons and also missed four weeks for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancers.
Gilbert played just five games in 2018 due to a lingering knee injury that sent him to injured reserve in December.
The Steelers have some in-house options to replace Gilbert, including second-year lineman Chukwuma Okorafor, veteran Matt Feiler, and Jerald Hawkins, a fourth-round pick in 2016 who has played in just five games, mostly because of injuries.