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’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 Witherspoonin 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.
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 @ CornerbackBefore 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
On one hand, the fans quickly made peace with the fact that Pittsburgh simply didn’t have the stars, the horses, to keep up with the two-time defending AFC Champions.
On the other hand, they pointed to poor coaching and quickly put together a wish list of those they felt should be held accountable. (And “held accountable” has always been code for “fired.”)
Mike Tomin stands between Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky during 2020. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via BTSC
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is always at the top of that wish list; he’s always on the hot seat with the fans even if the organization itself appears to have no such furniture. Most fans know this on some level, which is why offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are the sacrificial lambs they want to see up on the alter after last Sunday’s pathetic performance against a team that, to reiterate, was clearly better.
Let’s talk about Keith Butler.
It wasn’t long ago that the rumors began to circulate that he wasn’t even designing and calling the defenses any longer, that Tomlin had taken most of those responsibilities away from him. (Never mind that Butler could be seen holding a play sheet and, well calling plays during the heat of games.) I actually think a lot of people forgot about that rumor the previous two seasons when the defense performed at such a level that it could accurately be described as elite.
I suppose it makes sense that people would forget. After all, when something is working quite well, we don’t seem to care all that much about the behind-the-scenes stuff, about how the sausage is made. All we care about is that things are working.
With T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Minkah Fitzpatrick,Joe Haden, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualuand a few other notables, the Steelers defense purred in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately for Butler, Dupree left as a free agent last offseason. Mike Hilton, a top slot corner in the league for many years, also departed. Alualu departed as a free agent last March, quickly had a change of heart and came back before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 of the 2021 campaign.
As for Tuitt, he never played a down in 2021.
The speculation never waned as to why–was it the death of his brother or an injury?–but the bottom line was he wasn’t around. Devin Bush struggled coming back from a torn ACL the season before. Joe Schobert, a veteran inside linebacker who seemed to be a genius addition by general manager Kevin Colbert during the preseason, never quite lived up to the euphoria many felt when the trade was made in August.
Heck, even Watt, for as disruptive and destructive as he was in many games while tallying 22.5 sacks, that’s how quiet and ineffective he was while missing three games and parts of a few others with injuries.
The Steelers defense was not elite in 2021; it finished 24th in total yards allowed–including dead-last against the run.
Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.
Let’s move on to Canada. What a crappy offense that was in 2021, right? 23rd, overall, in total yards. It only scored 20.2 points per game. It sure seemed like Canada’s promotion, following the dismissal of Randy Fichtner, was a flop.
Was it a flop, or was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s floppy arm the real culprit? Perhaps it was that young and inexperienced and/or incapable offensive line.
I guess we’ll never know. All we do know is that Canada is the one who people want to see go–and not the washed-up 39-year old quarterback, who may or may not have been willing to buy into a new offensive philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade at Roethlisberger. I love the guy, but he wasn’t the same player in 2021 that he was in his prime. Even if he was, his strengths didn’t seem to align with Canada’s offensive philosophy.
Also, let’s not forget who was a part of the Steelers offense in 2021, and it certainly didn’t include Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant or Maurkice Pouncey. In other words, the offense was a shell of its former self and actually has been since Brown burned every bridge out of town following the 2018 season.
Isn’t it funny how effective Randy Fichtner was as a coordinator in 2018 when Brown was still here and Roethlisberger was leading the league in passing yards? Fast-forward to 2019. Brown was gone and Roethlisberger missed most of the year. Suddenly, Fichtner was an idiot without a “plan.”
No, he was just an offensive coordinator without his two best offensive weapons.
Last season, the offense started strong before everyone figured its secret: Big Ben really didn’t have it anymore following reconstructive elbow surgery, and even if he still did have “it,” that once-great offensive line certainly did not.
Crowd the line of scrimmage and force Roethlisberger to beat you deep — he rarely could.
My point with all of this is this: Players make the coaches, and no matter how many times you say things like, “You have to adapt your game-plan to fit the strengths of your players,” it’s not going to matter if your players have few strengths.
Will Canada get fired? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he does, will it matter in 2022 if Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins or (insert some rookie or veteran quarterback here) is horrible? Probably not.
Back to Butler. Now that he’s actually retired, will it even matter? Especially since Tomlin has been the one calling the shots on defense for years? Even if you want to place all the blame on Tomlin, can he ever devise a game-plan to make up for a reduction in star power? Even if the Rooneys insist that Tomlin hire a credible defensive coordinator and give him full autonomy, can he design a defense to make up for a lack of players like Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree?
I think you know the answers to these questions, which is why I liked you better when you admitted that the Chiefs were just a superior football team last Sunday night.
Epilogue – The Immortal Words of Dick LeBeau
In closing perhaps its best to remember the immortal words of Steelers legend Dick LeBeau. The scene was St. Vincents Latrobe and the time was the 1990’s and LeBeau was a coach on Bill Cowher staff. Carnell Lake had just reached an agreement to extend his contract and report to camp. When reporters asked Lebeau how the news made him feel, he quipped:
The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Paul Brown Stadium hoping to keep themselves in the thick of the AFC North division title race. Instead, they found themselves devoured 41-10 by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Don’t be fooled: This contest wasn’t even as “close” as the score suggests.
While the Steelers have owned the Bengals in Cincinnati while playing at Paul Brown Stadium, this wasn’t their first loss. But there was something different about this one, different because it signaled something deeper.
B.J. Hill sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Bengals.com
Yes, This Game Was Competitive. For a While
The Cincinnati Bengals are a better football team than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Moreover, looking beyond the frame of this game or this season, the Bengals are a team on the rise. The Steelers are not.
But this is the NFL. If Washington can beat the Patriots, the Jets can beat the Bengals, and the Dolphins can beat the Ravens then the Steelers could have beaten the Bengals.
And there were times in the first half when this seemed like it might be possible.
The Bengals scored on their first possession and made it look easy, with Joe Mixon accounting for 54 yards on that first drive and Joe Burrow running in untouched for a touchdown. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger would throw inside while Chase Claypool broke outside and Eli Apple snapped Big Ben’s interceptionless streak – and returned it 50 yards to the Steelers 5 for good measure.
Oddly enough, the next sequence proves that the Steelers, with a few plays could have made something of this game.
The Steelers stuffed Mixon on 2nd and 3rd and then Chris Wormley dropped Burrow on 3rd down.
Defenses that respond to a dramatic turnover by forcing an offense to settle for 3 typically find ways to win football games. The offense took note, as Ben Roethlisberger went right back to Chase Claypool; this time the sophomore from Notre Dame flipped the field.
The Steelers converted another third down, but alas had to settle for a field goal.
The Bengals scored on their next two possessions, which each touchdown coming easier than the first. Things were beginning to look bleak before the half, when Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Burrow with just under a minute left to go and returned it 19 yards.
Yes, a little bit of Minkah had given the Steelers a lease on life.
37 seconds isn’t a lot of time, but Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have proven field flipping ability. And once you get in the Red Zone, Pat Freiermuth isn’t quite “money” but he’s getting there. So if the Steelers could get a touchdown, get the ball back at the half and find the end zone again, the 2nd half could be quite interesting….
…Instead Ben Roethlisberger threw to James Washington but couldn’t step into his throw and former Steeler Mike Hilton was only to happy to make him pay, returning a pick six 24 yards and improving the score to 31-3.
And that ladies and gentleman, was the game.
Joe Mixon scores a 3rd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Little Analysis Necessary
When it was all over, the Steelers lost the game 41-10. Really, a second half comeback wasn’t feasible. (No, Alex Highsmith’s could have been pick six wouldn’t have moved the needle).
This Steelers squad simply isn’t talented enough or healthy enough. While James Pierre has looked sharp at times this year, he’s got a long way to go to show he’s the next Joe Haden. T.J. Watt was in uniform, but his best play was his post interception scuffle with Joe Burrow. Either Devin Bush‘s heart or his ACL recovery is lagging or perhaps a little of both, but he’s not getting the job done.
The Steelers tried moving Cam Heyward to nose tackle, but that proved to be a mistake.
On the offensive, Najee Harris showed he was capable of being truly a special back, but he hath no line to block for him. Fourth string guard B.J. Finney helped remind everyone why the Steelers let him go in free agency, two teams parted with him during 2020 and the Steelers waited until November to dress him.
This is a Pittsburgh Steelers team that can’t run and can’t stop the run.
Everyone knew that Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t carry this team on his back in 2021 and yesterday proved that. Claypool, Johnson and Freiermuth made some nice plays, but Ben clearly failed to make some throw’s he’d have made as recently as 2018.
Tomlin Promises Changes, but Some Changes Are Beyond His Control
Since he arrived in the NFL during the Steelers 2004 season, commentators have seldom tired of reminding us of how well Ben Roethlisberger has played in his native Ohio. He did it again this fall in Cleveland, but this streak skidded out Sunday in Cincinnati.
That’s an interesting factoid, but the story of this game goes beyond Ben losing what is likely his last game in Ohio. When asked change was coming after the game, Mike Tomlin admitted “You know, we’re open to doing whatever is required to change what’s trending.”
While there are some changes Tomlin can make, perhaps even ones that will bear fruit next week against Baltimore, the Steelers loss at Paul Brown Stadium signals that the guard has changed in the AFC North.
And there’s no decision Mike Tomlin can make this season to alter that reality.
The Steelers spent countless years trying to shore up their secondary. So many years, in fact, it seemed like it would never happen.
That all changed in 2019 when the Steelers added the final piece to their complicated puzzle.
Unfortunately, after two seasons of some of the best secondary play the team had seen in a long time, there are now questions at cornerback, following the free-agent departure of Mike Hiltonand the seemingly sudden release of Steven Nelson. But what about the safety position? Are there some questions that need to be answered in the form of a premium draft choice or two? We shall find out.
Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com
Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2021 NFL Draft: The Starters
While he was certainly a surprise first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft (28th, overall), that hasn’t kept Terrell Edmunds out of the starting lineup. In-fact, Edmunds has started a total of 43 games at strong safety since his rookie season. While his production and progress haven’t always impressed, he’s been reliable, and it appears that he has steadily improved each and every season.
2020 may have been Edmunds’ finest campaign, as he tallied two interceptions and eight passes defensed.
Maybe Edmunds’ progress can be attributed to the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick at free safety. It’s no stretch to say that Fitzpatrick, a former first-round pick who was acquired in a trade with the Dolphins early in the 2019 season, is the Steelers’ most dynamic defensive back since Troy Polamalu. That’s certainly debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Fitzpatrick’s mere presence in the secondary forces opposing offenses to account for him on every play–just like they once did with Polamalu. Fitzpatrick has back-to-back First-Team All-Pro honors under his belt and is heading into his fourth season with the look of a man who will earn a huge payday sooner rather than later.
Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2021 NFL Draft: The Backups
Veteran Sean Davis recently signed with the Colts, while 2020 special teams captain, Jordan Dangerfield, remains unsigned. Pittsburgh inked a deal with Miles Killebrew, who spent his first five seasons with the Lions. Much like Dangerfield, Killebrew was more special teams contributor than he was safety in Detroit and registered zero defensive snaps in two of his past three seasons — including none a year ago. The Steelers also list Kilebrew as a linebacker.
Antoine Brooks a sixth-round pick out of Maryland a season ago, only appeared in four games in 2020 and didn’t make much of an impression.
The Steelers 2020 Safety Draft Needs
This one is a bit tricky. Obviously, Edmunds and Fitzpatrick are locked in as starters for 2021. However, both have reached the points of their rookie deals where the Steelers must decide if they will pick up their fifth-year options. It seems likely that Pittsburgh will pick up both — that is almost a certainty with Fitzpatrick — but as of this writing, no announcement has been made about either player.
Again, Fitzpatrick is destined for a huge, multi-year deal, and the Steelers will have a lot of work to do to get one done.
As for Edmunds, he isn’t going to cost them as much, but he’s not going to be cheap, either. I don’t think it’s a done deal that either or both will be Steelers through their second contracts. With Killebrew and Brooks mostly unknowns, and with former Penn State safety Marcus Allen playing more inside linebacker, these days, there could be room on the roster for another young safety. Draft need: Moderate
Sometimes it is best to save the best for the last.
Thus far, between Tony Defeo and myself, our Steelers draft needs analysis has each spot on the depth chart save for outside linebacker and cornerback. The latter article just got more interesting as news broke that Steelers reserve cornerback Justin Layne was arrested on traffic violations and weapons charges.
According to Joe Rutter and Megan Guza of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Justin Layne is being charged with “with driving with a suspended license, speeding, and transporting a loaded firearm, which is a fourth-degree felony.”
On Twitter, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’sRay Fittipaldo reports that Layne was pulled over for “…doing 89 mph in a 50 mph zone.” Marijuana and marijuana odor was also observed.
Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review
The Steelers, per policy, issued a statement indicating they are aware of the situation but will not make further comment.
So if they won’t, then I will:
Regardless of what happens in the courts with Justin Layne, he has failed the idiot test.
Layne apparently already has a warrant out for another outstanding traffic violation. Although he is not yet facing any drug related charges, someone in his car was using marijuana, opening himself up to suspicion for driving with a controlled substance. And he has a loaded fire arm in the car.
Right away those are three separate things that could bring Layne into trouble with the law.
But truthfully, the odds are slim that you or I would ever know about any of the above had Justin Layne been smart enough to do one thing: Drive the speed limit.
People who drive the speed limit and obey other traffic laws still end up getting pulled over, and this happens to African American men far too often. But driving 40 miles an hour is a surefire way to catch the attention of a police officer.
Ergo, driving 40 miles above the speed limit is something that should be avoided if you’ve got an outstanding violation and/or are illegally transporting a weapon. That concept is apparently lost on Justin Layne.
Better This Happen Today, as Opposed to Ten Days from Now
What happens next is anyone’s guess. It could be that Justin Layne innocent of the charges. Even if the evidence is solid, one would have to assume that Justin Layne can afford good enough legal representation to keep him out of jail, assuming jail time is a possibility should he be convicted of the charges.
But he could still face discipline from the NFL and/or the Steelers.
Either way, the chances of the Steelers taking a cornerback earlier than expected in the 2021 NFL Draft just got better. Our full analysis will come later, but Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson‘s departures have thinned the Steelers depth at cornerback to Justin Layne and James Pierre.
The urgency of adding someone else into the mix just got greater.
Better that Justin Layne fail the “Idiot Test” one week before the NFL draft as opposed to a week after.
That didn’t take long. Less than a week after giving his agent permission to seek a trade, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut cornerback Steven Nelson. The move comes less than two years after the Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decided that Nelson was worthy of the largest free agent contract in franchise history.
Cap gurus like Omar Khan can use creative accounting to get stretch and squeeze contracts into a tight salary cap.
But when the cap comes in a 40 million below your estimate, creativity reaches its limits.
Everyone knew that. So we were told to expect to:
Say goodbye to veterans who’ve played vital roles in keeping the Steelers a contender
Watch the Steelers do little more than bargain basement hunting in free agency
Cut high salaried starters
Things are proceeding on schedule. Veterans like Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton are gone. So is Tyson Alualu. That was a bit of a surprise, and in a normal year the Steelers probably would have found the extra money to keep him.
The Steelers haven’t done much in free agency. Sure they’ve resigned Zach Banner and Cameron Sutton. But even those deals required using voidable years, as did JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers made 2 piecemeal signings, in addition to resigning Chris Wormley, but really haven’t done much else
And in the last week, we’ve seen the Steelers cut high-salaried starters. First it was Vince Williams, now it is Steven Nelson. Sure, as Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, the timing may be a bit off. Normally you’d expect the Steelers to make these moves before free agency to give their guys a chance to make back their money.
But going into free agency, there was talk that the Steelers would have to part ways with one of their cornerbacks.
They’ve just done that. Certainly, most people expected that cornerback to be Joe Haden. Joe Haden doesn’t make as much as Steven Nelson, but he is several years older. Cornerback is a young man’s game. If you’ve got a corner that’s in his mid 30’s and one in his late 20’s going with the younger one seems like a non-brainer.
And that’s likely the choice I would make.
But as Bob Labriola pointed out on Asked and Answered, some metrics indicated that Joe Haden had a better year than Steven Nelson. Again, banking too much on those types of metrics is dangerous but it does show that this wasn’t a slam-dunk case. And its also likely that the Steelers didn’t want to cut Nelson, but could come to some other sort of agreement.
As I wrote before, I’m hard pressed to find a way to think of how the Steelers 2021 defense can be better than its 2020 incarnation without Steven Nelson on it. That hasn’t changed.
But this was the reality we expected going into Free Agency. It just took a little longer to set in. Welcome to Steelers Free Agency Reality Therapy.
Going into the free-agency phase of the Steelers offseason, there really wasn’t much that would surprise this fan and writer, someone who had long-since accepted the team’s fate as it pertained to a salary cap purgatory situation that had to be dealt with.
Only $6 million under the cap, Pittsburgh’s moves were likely going to be unspectacular.
Departures figured to sting anywhere from a little to a lot.
Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come
Not surprisingly, the first week of free-agency went about as expected — or, should I say the first few days of the first week of free agency? The Steelers lost Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler and even Tyson Alualu fairly quickly. While some may have hurt more than others, only the most optimistic — and naive (let’s be real) — Steelers fans should have been totally taken aback by anyone that departed.
But the news on Friday, however, was quite shocking, and it came at you in one, giant good news/bad news wave. First, the good news: The Steelers signed receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a one-year deal for $8 million.
Next, the bad news: ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.
After all, even when it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Smith-Schuster would depart after receiving a huge, multi-year deal, the consensus was that Pittsburgh would still be fine at receiver; third-year man, Diontae Johnsonand second-year man, Chase Claypool have already shown a ton of potential, as has fourth-year, man James Washington, a youngster who may just simply need a real opportunity to show what he can do. Besides, the Steelers have been fantastic at drafting and developing receivers for over a decade now; therefore, why would it be any different if they decided to take another one in the 2021 NFL Draft?
The secondary, on the other hand, may not be so easy for Pittsburgh to restock and reload.
There’s no sugar coating it: The Franchise as struggled for a decade to draft and develop cornerbacks and safeties.
After that mostly didn’t work — and, “mostly” may be kind (anyone remember Cortez Allen or Senquez Golson?) — the Steelers had to go outside of the organization to find major talent, including cornerback Joe Haden, a post-cut free-agent signing in 2017; cornerback Steven Nelson, an unrestricted free agent in 2019; and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a trade acquisition early in the 2019 regular season. Yes, while Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent, who made the team in 2017, can be considered a homegrown talent, same with 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, the Steelers obviously couldn’t rely on their own resources when it came to turning the secondary from a liability into a strength.
Considering how hard it is to find blue-chip defensive backs in the area of the first round where the Steelers normally draft–this year, that area of the first round will be 24th–I doubt they really want to have to try again.
With all that in mind, I don’t think the Steelers really want to trade Nelson.
In my opinion, this is mostly a one-sided issue with Nelson and his agent forcing things. Think about it, why would the Steelers want to part with Nelson, who is in the final year of his contract and is slated to make $8.25 million in base salary? The Steelers would be hard-pressed to find another free-agent cornerback who can play the position as well as Nelson has the past two years, and at such a bargain rate. As for the draft? See above.
Ah, but that’s probably where the problem lies. Nelson likely feels that he’s severely underpaid, and when the two parties presumably had talks about a contract extension on the eve of free agency, Nelson was looking for a deal similar to what the top cornerbacks were earning–including a boatload of guaranteed money–and he wanted it asap.
You know how the Steelers are about guaranteed money, at least past the first year of a deal.
I don’t know what offers the Steelers will get for a trade involving Nelson. I also don’t know what’s going to happen if they don’t receive any offers that they deem worth it. Short of a contract agreement or trade that really works for Pittsburgh, I’d like to see Nelson stick around for at least one more year.
I seriously hope the Steelers don’t simply release the veteran if they can’t trade him.
Can a Steelers’ secondary that really just came into its own in 2019 absorb the losses of both Hilton and Nelson in one offseason? I don’t think so. I know Sutton has been retained and is capable of playing on the outside and in the slot, but he’s only one guy.
In conclusion, the Steelers secondary may again be a liability in 2021, and that is the kind of surprise that could cause a lot of fans to have heart attacks next season.
But Kevin Colbert’s ability to mine the NFL’s scrap heap for diamonds is unprecedented.
Just look at Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Super Bowl XL featured the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, authored by Willie Parker. Super Bowl XLIII featured the longest return in Super Bowl history, authored by James Harrison. Both men were undrafted rookie free agents that Kevin Colbert spotted but the rest of the NFL overlooked.
Strictly speaking Mike Hilton wasn’t an undrafted rookie free agent when he arrived in Pittsburgh.
But he fits the prototype pretty well, has started for 4 straight seasons making himself as an impact player and he’s now a free agent. Will he stay in Pittsburgh long enough to make a run at a ring? Let’s find out.
T.J. Watt strip sacks Philip Rivers and Mike Hilton is there. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Capsule Profile of Mike Hilton’s Steelers Career
Jacksonville signed then cut Mike Hilton as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2016. The Patriots swooped in and added him to their practice squad, but Hilton’s stay in Beantown lasted all of one week. Mike Hilton held a pink slip in his hand for most of the rest of the season, until Pittsburgh signed him to the practice squad in December 2016.
Hilton was the St. Vincents sensation during the summer of 2017, a feat which landed him both a roster spot and a gig as the Steelers starting slot corner. As a rookie Mike Hilton made two interceptions, knocked away six passes, while flying in under the radar for four quarterback sacks.
The sack sagged a bit in 2018 and 2019, but Hilton’s consistent play has continued for a Steelers secondary that has gone from a team weakness to a strength with him a part of the lineup. In 2020, Mike Hilton posted what might have been his best season, pulling down 3 interceptions, sacking opposing quarterback 3 times and registering 8 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021
NFL teams must have 3 competent cornerbacks. A starter-caliber nickle back is no longer a “Nice to have.” Mike Hilton has fulfilled that role for 4 years, and has delivered excellence to the position. He’s been durable playing in 59 games in four years, and at age 27 still has many years of his prime ahead of him.
Mike Hilton has an uncanny an ability to be around the ball
You can see it in his high sack total and impressive tackles for loss numbers, you can also see it in the photo above, T.J. Watt is the one making the strip-sack of Philip Rivers, but Hilton is right there in the frame.
Really, the only question is why haven’t the Steelers already locked Mike Hilton up to a long term contract?
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021
Mike Hilton had a great year in 2020, and he did it while splitting time with Cam Sutton.
There’s a reason for that, and that’s because Cam Sutton is a better coverage cornerback than Mike Hilton is. Cam Sutton might not be as good at pressuring the passer as Mike Hilton nor can he create mischief behind the line of scrimmage, but Sutton can do something that Mike Hilton hasn’t done and probably never will:
Move outside when needed.
Joe Haden will be 32 next season. If there’s one position where players tend to “get old fast” in the NFL, it is at cornerback. All signs indicate that Joe Haden will be back in 2021, but then what? Justin Layne certainly hasn’t shown he’s the answer there. Cam Sutton has shown that he might be.
The Steelers quite simply cannot sign both Cam Sutton AND Mike Hilton, and given a choice between the two, they should opt for Sutton.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mike Hilton in 2021
Mike Hilton has been a tremendous player for the Steelers and is yet another feather in Kevin Colbert’s cap. Perhaps under a normal year, the Steelers could afford to bring him back and Cam Sutton.