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Armon Watts Sneaky ‘Must’ Re-Sign In Steelers’ Offseason Plan

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The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have a big-name pending free agent. Not even to last year’s degree of CB Cam Sutton, who ultimately signed a three-year, $33 million contract with the Detroit Lions. QB Mason Rudolph will be the Steeler who garners the biggest free agency headlines with intrigue over his market value and the team’s alternative options should Rudolph sign somewhere else.

Holding onto other free agents like S Miles Killebrew is important and bringing back at least one of the team’s pending free agents at corner, Levi Wallace, James Pierre, and Chandon Sullivan, is sensible, even if it’s not groundbreaking. But retaining DL Armon Watts is quietly an important task on GM Omar Khan’s “to-do” list as the new league year nears. In part due to his play and in part due to the team’s lack of depth.

Watts signed a cheap, one-year deal in 2023, a veteran benefit contract that offered a reduced cap charge. With end/defensive tackle versatility and a decent though unspectacular camp, he edged NT Breiden Fehoko along what appeared to be a deep defensive line for one of the final spots on the 53-man roster. His year started out slow, inactive for Week 1’s beatdown by San Francisco. And he probably would’ve stayed that way had Cam Heyward not fully torn his groin in the loss, shelving him for half the season.

Watts was active nearly the rest of the way, working into the Steelers’ d-line rotation. He was never “the guy” and even with Heyward down, only once did he log more than 30 snaps in a game, but he was effective. In our defensive charting recap, Watts quietly posted some of the best metrics along the defensive line. He finished third on the team with 10 pressures and more impressively, had the best mark of any Steelers defensive lineman, averaging one pressure every 13.7 snaps. That’s better than Keeanu Benton, Larry Ogunjobi, and Cam Heyward.

Against the run, opposing teams averaged just 3.7 YPC when Watts was on the field, tied with Isaiahh Loudermilk for the second-best figure among Pittsburgh’s d-linemen and only narrowly trailing Heyward’s 3.6. In fairness and context, that’s a catch-all figure and Watts isn’t solely responsible for that. But on runs to Watt’s side when aligned as a LDE/LDT, offenses averaged only 3.5 YPC. Up the middle as a nose tackle, teams only averaged 2.1 YPC. The number is far worse when Watts was on the right side, an ugly 8.1 YPC, influenced by a 40-yard run against Green Bay in Week 10, washed down by a double-team with RB A.J. Dillon jetting past. A bad rep but just one rep all the same.

Still, the overall body of work was solid. Not spectacular and Watts isn’t going to be more than what he is, rotational depth, but it’s something Pittsburgh needs. Right now, there isn’t much of that. DeMarvin Leal looks on his way out of Pittsburgh by summer’s end and Loudermilk has only slightly improved throughout his NFL career, not making as much an impact as a pass rusher with more inconsistent run defense, though he got better during 2023. With NT Montravius Adams also quietly slated for free agency, Watts’ experience, production, and versatility are worth holding onto. He won’t cost much either, perhaps a touch more than his 2023 salary.

Finding a defensive lineman in the draft would be nice but it’s hard to pinpoint a specific name. The Steelers are so particular about what they need for the position, someone meeting the height/weight/length requirements along with production, pedigree, and good tape, it’s difficult to find that in a college football world full of tweeners and upfield pass rushers.

Sketching out how the Steelers’ offseason could look, if you assume they keep six defensive linemen on their Week 1 roster (and they kept seven in 2023), it could look like:

1. Cam Heyward
2. Larry Ogunjobi
3. Keeanu Benton
4. Free Agent Signing
5. Armon Watts
6. Developmental Draft Pick

With perhaps Loudermilk and a run-plugging nose tackle on the practice squad. It’s still worth exploring a free agent upgrade, especially as protection against the draft and providing more leeway to wait on drafting the position or focusing on a toolsy/traits player to develop, like Baylor’s Gabe Hall. That’s not to say the Steelers shouldn’t consider using an early pick on a d-lineman, they absolutely should, but this offers flexibility. But a room as shown above looks far stronger than what Pittsburgh finished the season with.

The bottom line is the Steelers don’t have an exciting list of free agents. Their most notable free agent outcomes won’t be on who they do/don’t retain (Rudolph aside) but on who they bring in externally. But Armon Watts is someone worth re-signing, checking all the boxes of what the team needs in depth for a price they can easily afford.

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