Agree or Disagree, the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton is No Surprise

After a one season hiatus, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense will again feature two Cams, as the team came to terms with cornerback Cam Sutton on a one year deal. The Steelers of course drafted Cam Sutton in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

He missed the first 12 games of his rookie year with a hamstring injury, but saw his first action on the road against Cincinnati on the same night of Ryan Shazier’s injury. Over the next six years Sutton would appear in 84 games and make 39 starts.

Sutton’s career arch serves as a caution against giving in to knee-jerk reactions to label a player “a bust” if he doesn’t produce immediately.

Cam Sutton, Cameron Sutton, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Sutton keeps the Falcons from landing in the end zone. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review.

Sutton largely flew under the radar in 2018 and 2019 working in mostly in the slot and on special teams while the Steelers experienced difficulty in staffing the cornerback slot opposite of Joe Haden (yes, you’d forgotten about the Coty Sensabaugh experiment, hadn’t you?)

Yet, when the Steelers were facing Salary Cap Armageddon in the spring of 2021 thanks to COVID, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin opted to cut Steven Nelson and extend Cam Sutton. Sutton started 31 games over the next 2 seasons, hauling in 5 interceptions and batting away 21 passes.

Alas, to get Sutton signed under such trying circumstances, the Steelers added a voidable year to his contract, making him a free agent in the spring of 2023. Resigning Sutton seemed like a no-brainer, for the Steelers, but Omar Kahn let him walk, and Sutton departed for Detroit.

AT the time it was thought that, while the Steelers wanted to keep him, Detroit offered beyond their number. And that is probably the case. Detroit did over pay, giving Sutton CB Number 1 money. But last October, Dejan Kovacevic added this piece of insight to the story:

I’m told that Sutton’s primary motivation was that his girlfriend had moved there, along with his two very young daughters, Luna and Eye’Lah. He’d spoken with pride in the past of being a “girl dad” of his love for those two. Family came first.

Talk about an ironic factoid.

The Steelers were able to sign Sutton because the Detroit Lions cut him after he was arrested on a warrant for domestic violence. The fact that he’s been welcomed back to Pittsburgh has ignited a furious debate among the faithful in Steelers Nation.

“…But that’s NOT the Steelers Way.” Or Is It?

For many, the Steelers decision to resign a player who has just been arrested for domestic violence offers yet more evidence that “The Steelers Way” as we know it is no more.

That sentiment is understandable. To a point. the Steelers have shown less tolerance than some other teams for players with off the field issues.

  • But like it or not, the reality is that welcoming back Cam Sutton into the fold isn’t that much out of character.

As this site pointed out when Michael Vick arrived in 2015, the Steelers not only kept James Harrison despite his own domestic violence incident, they offered him one of the largest contracts in team history a little over a year afterwards.

Steelers vs Ravens, Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, James Harrison, #Shalieve50

Cam Heyward and James Harrison enter Heinz Field carrying Ryan Shazier’s Jersey. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

While Ben Roethlisberger was never arrested or criminally charged, the Steelers also gave him a second chance despite the allegations against him from his conduct in Midgeville.

And look further back to the 1970’s and you’ll find the story of Ernie Holmes going on a rampage on the Ohio Turnpike that include him shooting out of a car and aiming a gun and pulling the trigger at a police officer only to have it mercifully misfire. Holmes went on to win two Super Bowls playing next to Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White.

One can agree or disagree with Art Rooney II’s decision here, but both his father Dan Rooney and his grandfather Art Rooney Sr. made similar choices to give second chances to players who’d broken the law.

Football Impact of Sutton’s Return

The Steelers have been aggressive this off season in remaking their team. But Jim Wexell’s count they’ve turned over 15 of the top 30 slots on a roster that made the playoffs but wasn’t good enough to win.

  • Yet the third or slot cornerback along with wide receiver has been a glaring need.

Before making this move the Steelers had Joey Porter Jr., Donte Jackson, several question marks and Patrick Peterson’s number on speed dial at cornerback. With Cam Sutton signed, the Steelers now have three legit cornerbacks and can develop depth behind them without needing to force someone into the line up.

Final Analysis

Let’s repeat something stated here when the Steelers opted to keep James Harrison after cutting Cedrick Wilson back in 2008:

  • There is no excuse for domestic violence.
  • Domestic violence is wrong. Period.
  • Those who are convicted of domestic violence must be punished.

Cam Sutton was initially charged with an ugly felony and evaded the law for several days. Since then he has turned himself in, entered a pre-trial derivation program and, after reviewing the evidence, prosecutors have reduced the charges against him. That neither absolves nor excuses Sutton, but suggests whatever transpired may not have been as severe as first suggested.

In addition to working through his current legal situation, Sutton will likely face a suspension from the league. This isn’t the first time the Steelers have had to make a difficult decision in a case like this. In the Tomlin era alone the Steelers opted to give James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger second chances, while opting to part ways with Wilson and Chris Rainey almost immediately.

The record, both on and off the field, shows that the Steelers made the right decision in all four cases. Let’s hope their choice on Sutton proves to be a fifth.

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Steelers Shuffle @ Strong Safety Continues as Eagles Sign Terrell Edmunds

The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost free agent Terrell Edmunds to the Eagles, as their 2018 first round draft pick signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia.

Given that the Steelers and Andy Weidl have signed Guard Isaac Seumalo and tackle Le’Raven Clark away from the Eagles and as well as Nate Herbig, who is also a former Eagle, the tempting headline might be, “Eagles claw back, sign Terrell Edmunds from the Steelers.”

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

While that might be accurate and attention catching, the real story here behind Terrell Edmunds departure is that the Steelers shuffle at strong safety continues. Sure, the Steelers resigned Damontae Kazee. But Kazee’s 2-year, team-friendly deal shows that neither Omar Khan nor Mike Tomlin think he’s the long term answer at strong safety.

No one has been for the last ten years when the Steelers quest to fill this critical position began.

  • In 2013 the Steelers traded up for Shamarko Thomas, hopping he was Troy Poamalu’s successor – Thomas started 2 games
  • Will Allen served as the stopgap safety in 2015, following Polamlau’s retirement
  • In 2016 the Steelers drafted Sean Davis, who started for two years
  • In 2018 the Steelers signed Morgan Burnett and drafted Terrell Edmunds. Burnett was one and done.

The short hand version of this story would read, “The Steelers had suffered a succession of busts at strong safety since Troy Polamalu retired.” That’s the superficial conclusion, the quick conclusion but also the wrong one.

Yes, Shamarko Thomas was a bust. The Steelers smashed franchise precedent in trading up to get him, and he was a disaster.* Will Allen was probably one of the unsung free agent signings of the Colbert-Tomlin era, and played pretty well for a 33 year old safety in 2015.

Sean Davis had a spectacular rookie year, and he really played well during the first half of his second year. Of course the second half was a different story, but whose play didn’t decline after the injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier?

Morgan Burnett, like the rest of the 2018 Steelers defense started to come on at the end of the year – it was Burnett who batted away Tom Brady’s final pass in the Steelers upset of the Patriots. But Burnett couldn’t beat out the rookie first round pick Edmunds, and wanted out of Pittsburgh so Mike Tomlin let him go.

  • And of course, many fans will always consider Terrell Edmunds “A bust.”

That’s simply wrong. Terrell Edmunds started 75 of the 79 games he appeared in. And if he was never a superstar in a defense that was on the rebound, he was always a force for stability. Yet in those five seasons, only picked off 5 passes, sacked the quarterback 5 times, recovered 1 fumble but never forced one. That’s 11 “Splash plays” out of 4,897 snaps on defense.

So his “Splash Play Percentage” was a mere 0.22%.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

As Jim Wexell, (who compiled those numbers above – although the “Splash Play Percentage” is my own creation) observed, “He’s the strong safety. Should we review the playmaking numbers of the strong safeties who’ve played in Super Bowls for the Steelers? … you can look up the numbers for Mike Wagner, Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake and Troy Polamalu.”

Well, I have.

  • Mike Wagner had 36 interceptions and 4 sacks in 116 starts for the Steelers
  • Donnie Shell had 51 interceptions and 9.5 sacks in 162 starts for the Steelers
  • Carnell Lake had 16 interceptions, 21.5 sacks and 15 forced fumbles in 154 sacks for the Steelers
  • Troy Polamalu had 32 interceptions, 12 sacks, 14 forced fumbles in 142 starts for the Steelers

In that light, Terrell Edmunds’ stats look similar to those of Lee Flowers, who had 4 interceptions in 75 starts with the Steelers. But even Lee Flowers, who didn’t have Edmunds’ athletic ability, had 12 sacks, 8 forced fumbles and 7 fumble recoveries. in 75 starts with the Steelers had 4 interceptions and 12 sacks.

In 2022 as well as in 2023 I wrote free agent profiles on Terrell Edmunds arguing that while, he wasn’t a superstar, he was “good enough” to deserve a second contract.

  • Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan obviously disagree.

After comparing Edmunds’ stats to his predecessors, I don’t know that I can disagree with them.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

*Here’s morsel for Steelers trivia buffs: After the Steelers drafted him, Carnell Lake commented that had Thomas been 2 inches taller, he might have been a first rounder. When Lake said the same thing 2 years later after they drafted Senquez Golson, I almost wonder if he was dooming the kid. Maybe he did….

 

 

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Omar Khan’s Right: Steelers Must Resign Cam Sutton. But Can They Keep the Cornerback in Pittsburgh?

I was fortunate enough to be in Pittsburgh during the summer of 1989 when Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My mom happened to be walking through the room when they were finishing a news segment on the ceremonies and asked, “What? Were Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount BOTH quarterbacks?”

“No mom, Terry Bradshaw was the ‘quarterback,’ Mel Blount was a ‘cornerback’” I explained.

It is easy to see how the casual listener could confuse “quarterback” and “cornerback.” And while “cornerback” might not be as hard to play as “quarterback,” good cornerbacks can be pretty damn hard to find.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t had a lot of success in finding cornerbacks via the NFL Draft.

They found one in Cam Sutton who is now set to become a free agent for the second time. Has he done enough for the Steelers to give him a third contract?

Cam Sutton, Mark Andrews, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Cam Sutton intercepts a pass to Mark Andrews. Photo Credit: Ravens.com

Capsule Profile of Cam Sutton Career with the Steelers

Some players simply take time to develop. Cam Sutton is one of them as the Steelers drafted him in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft yet didn’t see him become a full time starter until 2021.

  • But if you’re thinking that Cam Sutton looked like a disappointment in that interregnum you’re wrong.

The Steelers activated Sutton going into the 2017 road game against Cincinnati to bolster a secondary that was reeling without Joe Haden and with Artie Burns struggling. How much Sutton contributed is open to question as the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier that night, sending the defense into an total tailspin.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

For the next three seasons, Cam Sutton appeared in all but one game, playing extensively on special teams and working in as a slot cornerback.

  • At a glance, Sutton’s numbers from those three years fail to impress.

However, Sutton showed and ability to make plays at pivotal such as his interception which stopped a Browns drive and forced overtime in the ’18 opener. Or his on-sides kick recovery AND interception all within 37 seconds to  end a Charger’s rally in 2019 or his interception that helped the Steelers go up 24 to zero against the Browns in 2020.

When the Steelers entered salary cap hell thanks to COVID, one of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s first moves was to cut Steven Nelson and resign Cam Sutton, and he’s started 31 of a possible 34 games since then.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton

The Steelers have invested heavily in Cam Sutton’s development who has made steady improvement since his rookie year. In 2022 he made 3 interceptions and defended a record 15 passes. Is this some guy you want to let walk? The Steelers have struggled to draft and develop cornerbacks but Cam Sutton is a success story here.

10 years ago the Steelers saw Keenan Lewis develop slowly until finally establishing himself as a starter. But the Steelers let Lewis walk due salary cap complications and because they believed that they had Cortez Allen waiting in the wings.

  • Lewis walked and Allen floundered settling the franchise back immeasurably.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan must not make the same mistake with Sutton.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton

Yes, Cam Sutton is a good cornerback. But is he a great one? More importantly, does he deserve to be paid like one? According to Over the Cap Cam Sutton’s annual salary ranked him as 48th in the NFL last year.

A third contract will almost certainly need to put him in the top 32. They average about 7 million dollars a year in salary, 31 million in contract guarantees and 24 million in total guaranteed money.

Are you really ready to double Cam Sutton’s salary and guarantee him an 8 figure sum?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Cam Sutton

Omar Khan said “We love and think very highly of Cam,” and indicated that negotiations have already started. Good. Because resigning Cam Sutton should be the Pittsburgh Steelers number one free agent priority in 2023. Sutton’s not a super star. He’s not a “shut down corner.” He’ll never be one. But he is a solid number 2 cornerback.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell compared him to Deshea Townsend. Townsend was another mid-round cornerback who took 4 or 5 season to work himself into a starting job as the number two corner. From there he helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • The only real question mark here is Omar Khan.

Khan was decisive in getting extensions inked with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell last summer and then got creative with Diontae Johnson. He could have done the same with Sutton, but declined. He says he wants him back, and when Kevin Colbert made similar statements the player returned.

So let’s see if Khan follows suit.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Appearances Can Deceive: Steelers Trade Once Promising Chase Claypool to Bears

In a  out-of-character move, the Steelers traded Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears and acquired William Jackson from the Washington Commanders ahead of the NFL’s trading deadline.

In return for Claypool, the Steelers get the Bears 2nd round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and to get Jackson the Steelers sent their 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft while getting the Commander’s 7th in the 2025 NFL Draft.

Wow! What to make of this?

Two quick thoughts that come to mind are:

  1. Appearances can be deceiving
  2. Welcome to the Reign of Khan

Let’s dive into both in more detail.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

“Your Eyes Can Deceive You. Don’t Trust Them” – Obi Wan Kenobi

The day was October 11th, the venue Heinz Field, the opponent for the 4-0 Pittsburgh Steelers was the Philadelphia Eagles and the star of the show was Chase Claypool.

Claypool had joined the Steelers as a 2nd round pick out of Notre Dame in the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the game Claypool had a modest 6 catches, including a touchdown. He’d flashed a bit in the opener vs the Giants, catching Ben Roethlisberger’s only long pass of the night winning Unsung Hero Award honors.

But against the Eagles, Claypool exploded, scoring 4 touchdowns including one on a reverse. Claypool would finish the year with 62 catches and 9 touchdowns in the air, adding another on the ground. He won rookie of the year honors.

  • The Steelers seemed to have found another steal as a second pick wide receiver.

Claypool entered 2021 as a starter and although one would have expected his role to increase even more with JuJu Smith-Schuster’s early season injury, his production declined to 59 catches and a measly 2 touchdowns. Claypool’s 2021 season is best remembered by his decision to showboat after catching a pass at the end of the Minnesota game.

The clock was running and Claypool cost the Steelers at least, if not one snap in a game that expired with Pat Freiermuth coming oh-so close to pulling in a touchdown pass.

  • In 2022 Claypool has been more consistent, and shown a lot of heart after the catch.

Still a second round pick that will likely be early in the second round was too much for the Steelers to turn down.

  • With William Jackson the story differs.

The Steelers wanted William Jackson going in to the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bengals took him a pick before and Pittsburgh settled for Artie Burns. William Jackson went on to start for 59 games in Cincinnati, whereas Artie Burns only played in 58 games in Pittsburgh. Still, the Bengals allowed Jackson to depart in free agency to Washington.

Despite starting 16 games for the Commanders, Washington was clearly ready to move on from Jackson, giving him away at a fire sale price.

  • Mike Tomlin has never shied away from picking up someone else’s discarded cornerback.

The Steelers reportedly wanted Justin Gilbert in the 2014 NFL Draft, and snapped him up when Cleveland was looking to move him in 2016. Alas, Gilbert logged 11 defensive snaps on the year. In contrast, the Steelers snapped Joe Haden up when Cleveland cut him in 2017, and Haden was a 5 year starter and team leader.

Reign of Khan: Be Agressive

When the Steelers tabbed Omar Khan to replace Kevin Colbert, Khan assured the press that he would continue the Steelers Way. And thus far he’s doing that – while making his own mark.

However, under Khan the Steelers Way is becoming more aggressive.

This summer the Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell to contract extensions. The Steelers surely would have targeted the duo for new deals under Kevin Colbert, but for over a decade Colbert’s policy was to wait until the tail end of the summer to get the deals signed.

In contrast, Khan showed no hesitation and got both players resigned as soon as OTAs and Minicamp were over.

The approach to Diontae Johnson showed an even bigger change. Johnson wanted a new contract, but the Steelers clearly weren’t going to sign him to one of the mega deals that wide recievers are getting league wide. Under Colbert, its a fair bet to suggest that the Steelers would have simply let him play out his contract and become a free agent.

Omar Khan’s strategy was to offer Johnson a sort of hybrid contract that fell well-short of the mega deals wide outs are getting, yet was more than a simple “Prove it” deal.

  • The Chase Claypool trade offers another contrast.

When have the Steelers traded away a player during the season? I know that in the 1993 season, Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher sent Tim Worley off to Chicago. But I can’t remember them shipping someone out since then. And certainly not a starter.

Yet under Khan, the Steelers have made the calculation that they’re not going to resign Claypool and that they can get more value for him in the 2023 NFL Draft than they can for the balance of the 2022 season and the entire 2023 season.

That decision leaves Kenny Pickett a bit in a bind, as behind Johnson the Steelers only have George Pickens, Gunner Olszewski, Miles Boykin and Steven Sims.

But the move shows that Khan is playing the long game, which is good to see.

 

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Kevin Colbert Left His Mark As The Steelers General Manager

“I don’t want to say better than,” said Steelers general manager, Kevin Colbert, while speaking to reporters alongside head coach Mike Tomlin during a post-draft press conference on Saturday. “I’m proud to say we added to that [trophy] room. It was four trophies. There was four when we got here. And you knew the task. You think about DMR [the late Dan Rooney] and being able to add to that room means a ton. It doesn’t mean it’s over. The next step, I mean we gotta get more than, and we’ll never lose that. But it means a lot.”

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

I should say “former” Steelers general manager, Kevin Colbert. That’s right, after more than 22 years as the team’s de facto general manager– he was the Director of Football Operations from 2000-2010 — and then first official general manager (the organization simply refused to name one for the longest time), Colbert wrapped up his full-time duties with the organization on Saturday by putting the finishing touches on the Steelers 2022 NFL Draft.

In case you didn’t watch Saturday’s press conference–and in case the quote from above didn’t convey it — Colbert got surprisingly emotional when he talked about being able to help the Steelers add two more Lombardi Trophies to their trophy case during his tenure.

It was certainly a tall task to get the Steelers back to the top of the mountain after spending most of the 1970s there and giving the founder and owner — the late Art Rooney Sr. — a reason to actually have a trophy case for the first time ever in the history of what had forever been a floundering franchise.

Times were tougher in the 1980s, and after head coach Chuck Noll retired in 1991, there were a lot of near-missed in the 1990s under new head coach, and Pittsburgh native, Bill Cowher. It may have actually been because of all of those near-misses that Colbert, like Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, got a great job with his hometown football team. Tom Donahoe, the Steelers Director of Football Operations (general manager) starting in 1991, resigned from the organization after losing a power struggle with Cowher after the 1999 season. Like Cowher and Colbert, Donahue was a Pittsburgh native, but just because two people grow up in the same city, that doesn’t mean they’re going to get along.

Kevin Colbert was able to put his ego aside — if he even had one — and build some of the greatest rosters in franchise history while working alongside Cowher and his huge ego.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The fruits of their labor ended in more near-misses early on in Colbert’s reign, but after the drafting of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 — a move that was, as legend has it, “strongly encouraged” by Dan Rooney, the late, great president and owner of the franchise–Colbert was able to finally help the organization add to that room with a fifth Lombardi, thanks to a victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

Colbert was able to do it again a few years later, this time while working alongside the Steelers’ new head coach, Mike Tomlin, a man who also seems to have — as most head coaches do — a huge ego.

Head coaches are always at the forefront and are certainly vital to a team’s fortunes, but general managers also play a huge role. They might not share the same spotlight as the coach, quarterback or often even the team owner, but they have to be involved with every facet of the organization–including drafting, development, negotiations and even disciplinary issues.

It would be easy — and maybe even understandable — for someone with so many responsibilities to yearn for the spotlight, for attention, for credit. But while Kevin Colbert certainly got the credit — and even his share of the blame when things went askew — he always seemed to be more than happy with being in the background. Don’t get me wrong, Colbert certainly spent a lot of time talking to the media during his time as the Steelers’ general manager. He didn’t hide.

  • People knew who he was.

But he never seemed to care about anything other than getting the job done and doing so with a calculated, even-keeled approach. Colbert was a calm facilitator in a profession with strong, type-A personalities.

  • The Steelers have rarely ever acted on impulse.

Even sudden moves like signing the just-released Joe Haden to a lucrative deal just days after he was released by the Browns in 2017 or trading a first-round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019 seemed pragmatic and sensible.

Colbert always talked about moving up or down in the first round of the draft, but the Steelers rarely did that; when they did, however, the moves usually panned out.

The Steelers have rarely acted aggressively during unrestricted free agency or when there was a public cry to get one of their own players signed to a huge deal. In order for an organization to have that kind of an approach, it needs someone who isn’t prone to overreactions. That’s a job for a person who stays the course and sticks to the plan.

  • Maybe that’s why the Steelers only had one losing season during Colbert’s tenure.

Yes, we talk about Tomlin’s streak of non-losing seasons — as well as the organization’s lack of a sub-.500 record since 2003 — but imagine being the general manager of an NFL team for 22 seasons and only suffering one losing record. Imagine being an NFL general manager for two decades and having more Super Bowls than losing seasons.

That’s amazing.

There’s a lot of luck that goes into that, but there’s also a lot of skill. Colbert certainly was a very talented NFL executive, but, to reiterate, he didn’t seem to care about getting any of the glory.

He just wanted to add to the room.

Colbert did that, and he did his job–a job that can be a hot pressure-cooker if you allow it to be–better than few in his position ever have.

  • I don’t think people realize how good Colbert was at his job.

Take a bow, Kevin Colbert, I know you don’t like to do those kinds of things, but you certainly deserve it.

 

 

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Examining Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback – Has Pittsburgh Done Enough?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to have things locked down at the cornerback position, so to speak. For a short spell, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were good-to-great starters on the outside, while Mike Hilton was one of the best slot corners in the NFL.

  • But free agency, the constraints of the salary cap and age quickly changed that.

Mike Hilton was the first to leave, as he signed a deal with the Bengals at the onset of the 2021 free-agency period. Not long after that, Nelson was released due to the salary cap hell the Steelers found themselves in last spring.

Joe Haden was the only one left from that accomplished trio. But as of this writing, it appears that the Steelers have officially moved on from Haden, 33, who is an unrestricted free agent and has yet to sign with Pittsburgh or anyone else.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

Late last summer, right before the start of the regular season, the Steelers acquired Ahkello Witherspoon in a trade with the Seahawks. Witherspoon was a third-round pick by the 49ers in the 2017 NFL Draft. Witherspoon started 33 games during his four years in San Francisco before signing a one-year deal with Seattle last spring. Witherspoon was barely a factor for the Steelers for the majority of the 2021 campaign, but he started to earn starting reps down the stretch as a replacement for James Pierre and was arguably the team’s best cornerback at the end of the season.

Ahkello Witherspoon agreed to terms on a two-year deal with the Steelers in March and figures to be one of the starting outside corners in 2022.

Speaking of free agents and two-year contracts, the Steelers signed Levi Wallace, formerly of the Bills, to a two-year deal at the beginning of free agency. Wallace, an undrafted free agent in the 2018 NFL Draft, became a full-time starter in Buffalo by his second season and remained in that role through 2021. Playing opposite the highly-decorated Tre’Davious White, Wallace was a solid number two corner for the Bills and figures best suited for that same role in Pittsburgh.

Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft, spent his first four seasons serving many roles in the secondary, playing on the outside, in the slot and even at safety. But Sutton finally got his break and promotion in 2021, in addition to a new contract, and became a full-time starter. Again, Sutton is extremely versatile but perhaps seems destined to start in the slot in 2022, with the re-signing of Witherspoon and the addition of Wallace.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

James Pierre, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, struggled in 2021 after earning the most significant playing time of his short career.

After being selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Justin Layne has done very little to prove he even has what it takes to be a backup cornerback, let alone a starter.

Veteran Arthur Maulet, an undrafted free agent formerly of the Saints, Colts and Jets, made Pittsburgh’s roster last year and was a steady contributor in the slot.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at cornerback are Linden Stephens and Isaiah Johnson.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

When talking about the Steelers’ three starters, the consensus seems to be that they are all solid number two caliber corners.

That’s a good number, but is that enough, even with a consistent and dominant pass rush? When you factor in the underwhelming depth behind those top 3, I would categorize the Steelers’ draft need at cornerback as Moderate-High

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Cornering the Market? Steelers Resign Ahkello Witherspoon, to 2 Year Contract

Kevin Colbert may have struggled at drafting cornerbacks but he’s done a pretty good job at bringing them in from the outside. So its logical that when he finds a good one, he tries to keep him. And so it is with Ahkello Witherspoon whom the Steelers resigned to a two year contract.

Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2022 free agent priorities

Ahkello Witherspoon’s intercepts a pass. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers traded for Ahkello Witherspoon just before the season’s start, and then sat him for the better part of the first half of the season.

However, an injury to Joe Haden and struggles by James Pierre led to Witherspoon joining the line up and once there he turned heads. As observed here in Witherspoon’s free agent profile:

Despite only playing in 9 games and making 3 starts, Ahkello Witherspoon led the team in interceptions and tied Cam Heyward for passes defensed.

He also brings something else back to Pittsburgh that’s vital at the cornerback position: Youth.

Like fellow starters, Cam Sutton and new arrival Levi Wallace, Ahkello Witherspoon will by 27 in 2022, which should put him right in his athletic prime. Terms of Witherspoon’s contract haven’t leaked yet.

If that’s the case its almost certain that Witherspoon tested the market and realized that grass wasn’t greener outside of Pittsburgh. With Witherspoon’s return is a welcome development, the Steelers decision to bring him back along with their signing of Levi Wallace almost certainly ends Joe Haden’s time in Pittsburgh.

Safety Second?

Pittsburgh’s aggressiveness in free agency this spring has been unprecedented. They’ve signed 3 offensive lineman, a defensive lineman and found an inside linebacker to pair with Devin Bush, while tendering two backups behind time.

  • Now they’ve signed 2 cornerbacks.

And that leaves a gaping hole at safety. No, really it does. If the season started today either Marcus Allen would need to move back to safety or the Steelers would need to start Tre Norwood there.

Yesterday social media had reports of Tyrann Mathieu coming to Pittsburgh, and fans clearly think that’s a good idea. Terrell Edmunds remains unsigned. Either way the Steelers need to make a move, or otherwise they’re committing themselves to picking a safety early in the 2022 NFL Draft.

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Feed the Hand that Slaps You? Steelers Sign Levi Wallace to 2 Year Contract

How’s the saying go? Don’t slap the hand that feeds you? Well, maybe in Pittsburgh they’ll have to start saying, “Feed the hand that slaps you.” The Steelers have reportedly come to terms with Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace, who is expected to sign a 2 year 8 million dollar contract on Wednesday.

Levi Wallace entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Alabama, who made the Bills 2018 practice squad only to be activated and start the last 7 games of the season. He started all 16 games of the 2019 season, followed by 12 starts in 2020 and 17 starts in 2021.

That has given Mike Tomlin an excellent chance to see Levi Wallace up close, perhaps a little too close, as Wallace made interceptions in his first two outings against his future employer.

Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Bill, James Washington

Bills Levi Wallace picks off Ben Roethlisberger to seal a win. Photo Credit: Democrat and Chronicle

The first time came as Devlin Hodges tried to connect with James Washington deep late in the game, as Wallace’s pick sealed victory. A year later, Levi Wallace struck again late in the 4th quarter, picking off Ben Roethlisberger as he again tried to connect with Washington.

  • In 52 NFL starts, Levi Wallace has 6 interceptions, 30 passes defensed and 7 tackles for a loss.

At 4 million dollars a year the Steelers are getting Wallace at an extremely good contract.

Be that as it may, the fact that the Steelers are targeting cornerback as a priority signing also likely spells the end of Ahkello Witherspoon’s and/or Joe Haden’s time in Pittsburgh. The Steelers also have Cameron Sutton, James Pierre and Justin Layne under contract at cornerback.

Steelers Get 4th Round Compensatory Selection

The Steelers were also informed by the NFL that they would be getting a 4th round compensatory selection. Last spring the hope was that given the loss of Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton, the Steelers might get either a third round selection or perhaps multiple selections.

  • However, injuries to Bud Dupree and the need to play Joe Haeg altered that calculation.

The Steelers have the first 4th round compensatory pick, and now have a pick in each round, save for the 5th round.

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“Roster Bubble Baby” No More? Steelers Resign Arthur Maulet to 2 Year Contract

The Steelers second official move in free agency amounted to a bit of a surprise. After locking down special teams ace Miles Killebrew down to a 2 year contract, the Steelers followed suit with another 2 year contract for Arthur Maulet, seemingly giving him a respite on being a roster bubble baby.

Arthur Maulet, Steelers vs Broncos

Arthur Maulet with his lone pass defense in 2021. Photo Credit: Mark Alberti, Icon Sportswire via Getty Images from BTSC

Capsule Profile of Arthur Maulet Career with the Steelers

When Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said that replacing (now) Super Bowl starting slot cornerback Mike Hilton would be a multi person job he wasn’t kidding.

During the 2021 season the Steelers split slot corner duties 3 ways between starting corner Cam Sutton and rookie “Swiss Army Knife” Tre Norwood. The other person was free agent Arthur Maulet.

A quick look at his transaction history on Pro Football Reference reveals that Arthur Maulet has been a roster bubble baby throughout his entire NFL life. That did not change when he arrived in Pittsburgh, joining the Steelers after the 2021 NFL Draft, getting cut in late August, only to return to the regular season roster before opening day.

Roster bubble baby or not, Maulet quickly worked himself into line up of the Steelers secondary, playing in 15 of 17 games. Maulet struggled at times, giving up a few key plays in the Steelers game against the Bears. As the season progressed, Maulet stepped up and provided run support when it was sorely needed.

He also forced a fumble against the Titans that Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered and the Steelers converted into their only first half points for a 19-13 point win.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Arthur Maulet

Arthur Maulet is never going to build a sexy ESPN highlight reel. But he’s shown that he can be a serviceable defensive back in a unit that needs stability. He also came up strong in run support, and the Steelers need all the hlep they can get in stopping the run.

Terms of the two year deal haven’t come out, but you can imagine its not much higher than the veteran minimum.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Arthur Maulet

Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds and Ahkello Witherspoon are all free agents. And while its possible that some of them will come back, free agency is 24 hours away. The faster the clock ticks towards 12:00 March 14th, 2022, the more likely all three are to leave Pittsburgh. The Steelers still have James Pierre under contract. He might some “upside,” but are you comforted with the thought of him as the proverbial “next man up?”

  • By bringing back Arthur Maulet reinforces a liability not a strength.

Maulet might have been a respectable role player in a secondary featuring established playmakers, but remove those playmakers and Maulet becomes someone that teams exploit early and often.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Maulet

Success in the salary cap era hinges on finding players that provide the biggest bang for the smallest salary cap buck.

In 2021 Kevin Colbert did some bargain hunting and found Arthur Maulet, and Maulet delivered decent value. In this writer’s humble opinion, Maulet figured to be the type of player the Steelers could wait to sign and bring back after the draft.

But Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have decided differently. And so they should. Maulet might not be a superstar, but he did log 33% of defensive snaps and another 33% of specials teams snaps. That shows he can be a role player and you need those on your roster.

If the Steelers still want to bring back Arthur Maulet after that draft, he’ll likely be available.

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The Steelers Should Resign Joe Haden – But Only at the Right Price

Cornerback is one of the NFL’s most taxing positions to fill. So the Pittsburgh Steelers having sent cornerbacks Jack Butler, and Rod Woodson and Mel Blount to the Hall of Fame have a good track record there. Ike Taylor likely could have joined them, had he been able to hold on to interceptions (outside of his game changing pick in Super Bowl XL).

But since Taylor’s retirement the Steelers have struggled to fill their needs at cornerback, which is why they snapped up Joe Haden when the Browns cut him in August 2017.

The Steelers resigned Haden in 2019, and now that deal is up too. Will the Steelers extend his day in Pittsburgh even further?

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Capsule Profile of Joe Haden’s Career with the Steelers

When Joe Haden arrived in Pittsburgh, he sustained an upswing in the Steelers defense that had begun a half season before. Haden started instantly and became an immediate leader in the locker room and in on the field.

While most people point to Ryan Shazier’s injury as the moment the Steelers defense dipped into decline, the truth is the trouble started with Joe Haden’s injury against the Colts that fall. Haden returned later that year and started for the next 3 seasons, logging 9 interceptions, defending 54 passes, forcing 2 fumbles and even dropping 11 ball carriers for losses.

  • Those statistics, while impressive don’t capture what Haden has meant to team.

To understand that look no further than the Steelers 2021 home win against the Titans, were on 4th and 6th with 0:27 at the Steelers 15, Joe Haden stoned Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for no gain sealing the Steelers win.

That one play is Joe Haden’s Steelers career in a nutshell. When the game is on the line, you can count on Joe Haden to make a play.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Joe Haden

1-9. That’s the Steelers record in games that Joe Haden has missed since 2018. Since Ike Taylor’s “Life’s Work” arrived the Steelers have tried finding corners on the waiver wire, rummaging in through the free agent bargain basement, making trades, drafting them late and developing them or drafting them early.

None of it has worked. The only thing that worked was bringing back departed free agents (see William Gay), and even that was sort of an accident.

Joe Haden changed all of that. His value to the team is clear and he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Joe Haden

Cornerback is a young man’s game. Joe Haden will be 33 next year. 33 is not young in the NFL and is positively old in defensive back years. The Steelers have Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong late in the season.

  • Who are you going to spend your salary cap space on?

The 33 year old corner who missed 5 games last year? Or the 27 year old cornerback who had 2 interceptions in his second start and 3 picks in a five game span (oh, and he also tied for the team lead in passes defensed.)

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Joe Haden

Joe Haden wanted a contract extensions before the season and wasn’t happy when he didn’t get one. He even thanked “Pittsburg” before Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field, clearly communicating his impression of where he is headed.

Yet, Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette indicates that his sources are telling him that the door is open for Haden’s return.

  • It might be, but only at the right price.

The Steelers would be wise to prioritize signing Ahkello Witherspoon while letting Joe Haden test the market, to see who is ready to pony up for a 33-year-old corner. If no takers can be found, the Steeler would be wise to bring him back at a reasonable third contract, and allow him to serve as a 3rd corner.

He’d be a strong presence off of the bench and in the defensive backs room.

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