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Russell Wilson can get back on Hall of Fame track in Pittsburgh; plus, five underrated free-agent signings

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was published before the Chicago Bears agreed to trade quarterback Justin Fields to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday.

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:

But first, a look at one of the most high-profile -- and potentially prosperous -- pairings from the open market ...

Russell Wilson likely entered the offseason looking for an opportunity to start for a winning team. In signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 35-year-old quarterback not only checked that box, but he put himself in prime position to revive his Hall of Fame candidacy. 

While I am sure that my gold-jacket assertion will illicit eye rolls from many observers who watched the nine-time Pro Bowler struggle in the Mile High City, the marriage between Wilson and the Steelers should be a match made in heaven -- especially at the bargain-basement cost of $1.2 million, a price tag that's possible because Wilson's former employer must pay most of the $39 million still owed to the QB for the upcoming season.

In Pittsburgh, Wilson not only joins a storied franchise synonymous with winning, but he gets to work with a future Hall of Fame coach whose staff adheres to an offensive philosophy that perfectly meshes with the one-time Super Bowl champion's talents. With a supporting cast that features a beefy offensive line surrounded by dynamic playmakers and a defense loaded with blue-chip talents, Wilson has a chance to turn back the clock to his best years in Seattle.

I know it has been a minute since we've talked about Wilson managing the game at an elite level as a youngster, but reprising that role could enable the veteran to squash the narrative hovering over his game. And to be fair to the man, his two-year sojourn with the Denver Broncos wasn't as utterly hopeless as many seem to think. Wilson compiled a 42:19 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 90.9 passer rating during that span, showing significant improvement in his second year with the team. In 2023, Russ completed 66.4 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions before getting benched for the final two games. Considering the Steelers have not had a signal-caller reach 25 touchdown passes since Ben Roethlisberger threw 33 in 2020, Wilson upgrades the quarterback room with his experience and winning pedigree. And yes, it's officially his room now, with Pittsburgh trading former first-round pick Kenny Pickett to the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday.

Furthermore, Wilson's game perfectly aligns with new Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith's scheme, which combines a ground-and-pound approach with a complementary play-action passing game featuring vertical elements. Over his three-year tenure as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Smith's offense used play-action at the second-highest rate in the NFL (32.3 percent), per ESPN. By Pro Football Focus' count, Wilson completed 64.7 percent of his passes last season with an 11:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 118.1 passer rating when throwing off play-action. Add in some additional numbers from Next Gen Stats -- Wilson posted a 6:1 TD-to-INT ratio and 111.7 passer rating on passes of 20-plus air yards -- and you can see that the veteran's strengths match Smith's schematic approach.

An excellent ball handler with outstanding arm strength and range, Wilson excels as a play-action playmaker, targeting deep receivers down the field or outside the numbers. Following play-action fakes with the Seahawks, he routinely dropped perfect rainbows to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett on various go balls and deep overs. Wilson also tossed dimes to receivers and tight ends on various bootlegs, with targets positioned on different levels to give the veteran easy high/low reads on the move. 

Smith utilized similar tactics during his days as the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator, helping Ryan Tannehill rediscover his game after arriving in Nashville via trade from the Miami Dolphins. Tannehill flourished under Smith's tutelage, winning Comeback Player of the Year in 2019. In two seasons with Smith as his OC, Tannehill went 18-8 with a 55:13 TD-to-INT ratio, 67.3 completion percentage and 110.6 passer rating. Considering the Titans made back-to-back playoff appearances with Tannehill finishing among the top five in passer rating in each of those seasons (he led the NFL in 2019 with a 117.5 mark and finished fifth in 2020 with a 106.5 rating), Smith seems like the perfect coach to fuel Russ' renaissance and help the Steelers become viable contenders in 2024.

Beyond this great QB-coach pairing, the Steelers have the perfect supporting cast to help Wilson get back on the path to football immortality.

The combination of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren provides Wilson with an imposing backfield duo, while George Pickens gives the QB a dynamic receiver to target on the perimeter. With tight end Pat Freiermuth controlling the middle of the field as a big-bodied chain mover with sticky hands, Russ has enough firepower around him to tease and torment opponents utilizing a run-heavy/play-action game plan.

As the Steelers continue to build up their offensive line with massive athletes possessing "bully ball" potential, the protection around Wilson should enable the QB to thrive as a play-action specialist in the pocket. Though it is best to keep Wilson on a pitch count of 35 or fewer pass attempts in order to maximize his effectiveness, the veteran remains one of the best closers in football, with 39 game-winning drives and 31 fourth-quarter comebacks (four of each in 2023) on his résumé. In a league where games are frequently decided on the final drive, Russ' magical playmaking skills can give the Steelers a chance to win against the murderers' row of quarterbacks in the AFC.

With Mike Tomlin willing to take on any criticism that will accompanies Wilson's arrival in the Steel City, the veteran quarterback could comfortably rediscover his winning ways while reprising his role as a spectacular game manager for one of the league's banner franchises. And if Wilson enjoys a fruitful second act in Pittsburgh, he could absolutely set himself up for the call from Canton.

Don't overlook these free-agent signings

The first few days of the NFL's free agency frenzy routinely feature a number of blockbuster deals that dominate the headlines. But oftentimes, under-the-radar signings determine which teams emerge as playoff contenders. 

For instance, last March, the Kansas City Chiefs added Drue Tranquill to a lineup that already appeared pretty loaded at linebacker. Though the veteran was expected to serve as a backup/spot starter, he ultimately emerged as a key sub-package contributor for the Super Bowl champs. With 78 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, seven QB hits, seven tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles, Tranquill gave K.C. plenty of bang for their buck on the one-year, $3 million deal he signed in the 2023 offseason. One year later, the Chiefs re-upped the linebacker on a three-year, $19 million extension.

After taking some time to scour the free-agent tracker for underrated veterans acquired to fill key roles, I'm here to supply five overlooked signings that could pay huge dividends in 2024.

Leonard Floyd
Edge · Age: 31
San Francisco 49ers
2023 record: 12-5

CONTRACT: Two years, $20 million with $12 million guaranteed in Year 1 and a max value of $24 million.

The 49ers' desire to return to basics on defense relies on the unit producing more sacks and pressures without blitzing. Floyd has efficiently registered 39.5 sacks since 2020, with at least nine each season. Playing opposite Nick Bosa, the ninth-year pro should feast on one-on-one chances in obvious passing downs, resulting in more splash plays (sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers) for a defense that routinely plays at an elite level.

Philadelphia Eagles
2023 record: 11-6

CONTRACT: Three years with a max value of $33 million.

After failing to agree on an extension with the Eagles following an impressive 2022 campaign, Gardner-Johnson spent a season in Detroit. Now he returns to Philly to fix a leaky secondary that failed to prevent balls from flying over the top of the defense in 2023. As an aggressive ballhawk with superb instincts, awareness and range, the sixth-year pro gives new Eagles defensive coordinator Vic Fangio a versatile defender to align in the slot or deep half in a split-safety scheme. Gardner-Johnson adds proven playmaking ability to a unit that needs to generate more turnovers in 2024.

Jacoby Brissett
QB · Age: 31
New England Patriots
2023 record: 4-13

CONTRACT: One year, $8 million.

While New England could certainly use the No. 3 overall pick on a passer next month, the Patriots wisely picked up a bridge quarterback to lead the team, thus allowing a potential rookie QB to acclimate to the NFL at his own pace. In Brissett, the Pats have a veteran signal-caller with the managerial skills to keep the offense on schedule and the team in games. While the ninth-year pro's numbers don't jump off the stat sheet, he enters the season with a career touchdown-to-interception ratio that's better than 2:1 (51:23) and a completion percentage north of 60 percent (61.3) -- figures that are good enough to win when the rest of the squad operates at a high level.

Gus Edwards
RB · Age: 28
Los Angeles Chargers
2023 record: 5-12

CONTRACT: Two years, $6.5 million with $3.375 million in guarantees.

The reunion between Edwards and his former offensive coordinator (Greg Roman) could steady the Chargers' attack as Jim Harbaugh implements a ground-and-pound game plan that alleviates some of the pressure on Justin Herbert to carry the load. Though Edwards has not registered a 1,000-yard season in his six-year career, the veteran has been a rock-solid contributor, eclipsing 700 yards four times as a part-time player. And he's fresh off a campaign that saw him post career bests in rushing yards (810) and touchdowns (13). Given a chance to carry the load as Los Angeles' lead back, Edwards could emerge as a dark-horse candidate for the rushing title in 2024.

Bobby Wagner
LB · Age: 33
Washington Commanders
2023 record: 4-13

CONTRACT: One year with a max value of $8.5 million and $6 million in guarantees.

As new Commanders head coach Dan Quinn attempts to improve the culture in D.C, he will lean on this perennial Pro Bowler and one-time Super Bowl champion to spark the change. Wagner's wisdom and leadership will improve the defense's overall performance, with his range, instincts and awareness shrinking the field for opponents. Having led the league in tackles three separate times -- including this past season, with a whopping total of 183 -- the six-time first-team All-Pro is the productive playmaker Quinn needs in the middle of his defense.

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