Steelers mailbag: Mike Tomlin gets some love; what should they prioritize in free agency?

PITTSBURGH — Matt Canada is back, and you aren’t thrilled with that. Danny Smith appears to be returning for his 14th season as special teams coordinator, and you aren’t happy about that, either. Brian Flores could be on the move, too, and you aren’t satisfied with that.

The offseason is a little more than two weeks old, and the majority of Steelers Nation isn’t happy with what has transpired. And it’s understandable. The offense wasn’t good, and Canada was the one scheming it. Considering Kenny Pickett is still in his formative years, if things go sideways in 2023, his growth could be stunted.

On the flip side, a new Offensive Coordinator would also set things back a year, and that’s probably why Mike Tomlin decided to stick with Canada.

So, let’s talk about it — and much more.

(Note: Questions have been edited for clarity and length.)

Do you think the large number of Offensive Coordinator vacancies and the fact it would be a competitive Marketplace right now had any influence on the Steelers’ decision to retain Canada? — Scott M.

I don’t think that crossed their minds, even for a second. If you are an Offensive Coordinator trying to take that next step, wouldn’t a team that has Kenny Pickett, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Diontae Johnson and George Pickens intrigue you more than, say, Denver or Houston? Canada came back because they didn’t want to shake up what Tomlin felt was momentum in the second half of the season. It is a gamble for sure, but Canada has one year to show what he can do with the offense without any limitations. It might work. It might not.

I want to see the improvement of the Steelers continue next year. Make the Playoffs with perhaps one playoff win. End 2023 with more well-founded optimism. Anything short is a failure. What does success in 2023 mean to you? —Jeff P.

Success would see a noticeable jump in Pickett’s play in terms of making all the throws as well as making the playoffs. That would be a successful 2023 season. You go back in recent history, and the “rebuild” takes about two years. Depending on when you consider the rebuild to have started, a playoff appearance next year could be successful, coupled with noticeable improvement from Pickett.

Rate the possibility of signing the Edmunds Brothers to fill the safety and inside linebacker needs? — Mike S.

They will make a run at Terrell Edmunds. Unless they lowball him something fierce, he would be loyal to the Steelers and come back. Sure, he will test free agency, but he knows he can make decent money here and would have a role carved out for him. As for his younger brother Tremaine, it makes a lot of sense. He’s a good player at a position of need who has a pedigree and is still young (24). Since the Bills paid Matt Milano a few years back, I don’t expect them to drop more money into the position. It’s just a matter, again, of how much.

Would you draft USC receiver Jordan Addison at 17 and then an Offensive tackle at 32 to help with the development of Pickett? — Jason J.

Well. Flip that around, and I’m all ears. I am way more interested in getting a top tackle than a potential No. 3 receivers for the next two years. Plus, Calvin Austin might be good. There are just other positions where there’s more need.

What position do you see the Steelers prioritizing in free agency? — Ricky G.

It’s not going to be the Offensive line in free agency. There’s too much money and not enough talent in free agency when it comes to the offensive line. You get those guys in the draft — and the Steelers will. You can say the same about the defensive line, but there will be some free agents they might want to look at. They need to add depth at a lot of positions, and that’s where free agency is going to be big.

Can people get over firing Mike Tomlin? What baseball manager said, “I managed well but the players played badly”? The same goes for Tomlin. They can coach, but the players need to be better. — Jeffrey M.

I agree, but Tomlin has a big part in choosing those players, so he’s somewhat responsible when it comes to players playing poorly. Coaches put players in position, but ultimately it is the player who has to perform. Do you think Danny Smith tells his players to hold on kickoff returns? Of course not, but they still do.

How much difference will we see in the offense with a less conservative Canada playbook? If Tomlin did ask him to be more conservative with a young quarterback, how much will Canada be able to open it up? — Matt V.

I don’t know whether it will be opening it up as much as trusting Pickett with the entire offense and allowing him to make plays. From the start, it was pounded into Pickett’s head not to turn the ball over. “When in doubt, be safe!” You can’t win like that and you can’t score points like that. It’s not about jet sweeps or scheming receivers open or throwing to the middle of the field as much as it is allowing him to take chances down the field and allowing his receivers to make plays. We didn’t see much of that from Pickett this year until the end of the season when they were down late and needed a score — against the Raiders and Ravens.

Why is it that Tomlin never seems to have the same level of quality in the coaching staff behind him that Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher seemed to have? Is this on him or management? — Mark K.

Coaches have two ways of constructing their coaching staff — young and inexperienced or veteran and experienced. For whatever reason, Tomlin likes the older veteran coaches. He will never acknowledge that, but his resume of hiring coaches makes it clear. They inherited Dick LeBeau and Bruce Arians. He was forced to hire Todd Haley. Keith Butler was a defensive coordinator-in-waiting for a decade, so that explains it some. He does have some younger guys on the staff now with Eddie Faulkner, Grady Brown and Denzel Martin.

What are the odds of Bryon Leftwich being the senior Offensive assistant/passing-game Coordinator for the Steelers this upcoming season if he doesn’t get another shot at an Offensive Coordinator position? —Justin E.

I think there is a legitimate chance. Leftwich played here, Tomlin loves him and Canada is in the final year of his contract. A coordinator-in-waiting on the staff seems to be what Tomlin likes with Teryl Austin and Canada Hired and eventually being promoted.


Former Bucs Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich. (Robert Hanashiro/USA Today)

Have there been any Whispers about Stephon Tuitt unretiring? — Timothy C.

I haven’t heard a peep from anyone even suggesting Tuitt would consider returning. Even if he were, how can you rely on a guy who a year ago was willing to call it a career? I wouldn’t, so there is no way he’s coming back.

Do you see any chance of the Steelers hiring Hines Ward as their new Assistant receivers coach? — Jeff S.

Ward is a head coach in the XFL, and I am sure he can’t get out of that contract this year. Also, I am not sure whether he gets along with some people associated with the organization after spending the 2017 training camp as a coaching intern. There is no way he will coach the Steelers anytime soon.

Who would be your ideal backup quarterback for the Steelers next season? — Jeff S.

Gardner Minshew … 100 percent.

Any chance we bring back Bud Dupree at an affordable salary to provide depth behind TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith? Malik Reed and Jamir Jones gave us nothing this season. — Brian W.

I highly doubt it. They need depth, but you don’t want to stunt Highsmith’s growth by limiting his snaps, and I am sure Dupree believes he’s more than a 15-snaps-per-game player. Now, if Highsmith isn’t in their long-term plans (which I believe he is), then all options are on the table.

Any insight into Canada’s relationship with the other coaches on offense? — Michael J.

I know a couple of assistants left because of the tough relationship with Canada and a couple didn’t want to come in and work with him. Take that for what it is. He works well with the coaches in place now. From the outside, I never saw or heard anything that suggested he was tough to work with.

Would the Steelers have the cap space to sign two big-name free agents like Tremaine Edmunds and Daron Payne? — Eric M.

They have enough money, but do they want to spend it on an inside linebacker or a D-lineman? I will say this: Payne has ties with Steelers defensive line Coach Karl Dunbar, who coached Payne for two years at Alabama. If they decide to move on from Larry Ogunjobi, yeah, Payne would be a good option. He’s young (25), played at a big-time school and is on his second contract — everything the Steelers look for in a free agent.

(Top photo of Mike Tomlin and Kenny Pickett: Philip G. Pavely / USA Today)

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