Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?
When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)
- However, starting around the second week of free-agency, the Steelers made some news (sort of), by inking receiver Justin Hunter to a one-year deal on March 15.
Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis.
Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.
Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.
- With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.
The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.
- No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.
Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?
The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.
- Justin Hunter is another player of fairly high pedigree.
After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.
- Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.
With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.
Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.
In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton.
As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,
Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.
With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.
Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.
- Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.
If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.
No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.
Some nice insurance.
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