Upset about Steelers Cutting Steven Nelson? Call it Free Agency Reality Therapy

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.

So now what?

Has the team that decided to delay the a rehash of Mark Malone, David Woodley and the 1980’s by bringing back Ben Roethlisberger for a another year instead embraced a reboot of the Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell, Coty Sensabaugh, and Artie Burns?

Maybe. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this shouldn’t be such a shocker.

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Free Agency Proceeding for Pittsburgh as Expected

Thus far free agency has evolved for the Steelers much as it was expected to. The Steelers had planned and projected for a 2021 salary cap of about 220 million dollars. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, they got one of about 183.5 million.

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:

  1. Say goodbye to veterans who’ve played vital roles in keeping the Steelers a contender
  2. Watch the Steelers do little more than bargain basement hunting in free agency
  3. 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.

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The Steven Nelson Trade News was the Type of Surprise Steelers Fans Dread

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, Steelers vs Bills

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.

While you may have been pleasantly surprised to hear about the Steelers re-signing of Smith-Schuster, the news about Nelson had to rock you a little.

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 Johnson and 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.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Mike Hilton Is a Steelers Success Story, But This Free Agent Will Find Fortune Elsewhere

Undrafted Rookie Free Agents have been the secret to Kevin Colbert’s success. OK, his record of only wiffing on two first round draft picks (Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns) since returning to Pittsburgh has had a big role in his success.

  • 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, Mike Hilton, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

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.

And he did this while splitting time with Cameron Sutton.

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.

There’s no way they can sign both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton and they probably won’t even try. Expect Mike Hilton to find his fortune outside of Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Free Agent Sean Davis: Will a Third Contract be the Charm?

The Steelers Joe Greene Great Performance Award aka Steelers Rookie of the Year award but named for Joe Greene carries a curious history. 

Some winners have authored Hall of Fame careers with the Steelers, such as Alan Faneca, Troy Polamalu and at some point, Ben Roethlisberger. Others, faded into oblivion like Delton Hall (who beat out Rod Woodson), Anthony Henton and Kendrell Bell. Some had good but not quite “great” careers like Louis Lipps or Kordell Stewart.

At this time last year, 2016 Joe Greene Great Performance Award winner Sean Davis appeared to be locked into that final category – he was one of the tweeners. Then he unexpectedly returned to Pittsburgh to start the 2020 giving him a shot at moving himself into the “good category.” 

He didn’t play enough to do that in 2020 and is now a free agent again. Will Sean Davis stay in Pittsburgh to get a third shot? Let’s find out.

Sean Davis, Chris Conley, Steelers vs Chiefs 2016 AFC Divisional Playoffs

Sean Davis hits Chris Conley in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Davis’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers selected Sean Davis out of Maryland in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Davis came to the pros with position flexibility, thanks to playing both safety and cornerback in college. Sean Davis was named the starting slot corner early in his rookie season before ultimately moving to strong safety.

Sean Davis spent 2017 at strong safety but moved to free safety in 2018 following the departure of Mike Mitchell. An injury and the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick early in the 2019 season eventually made Sean Davis expendable, and he signed a one-year deal with the Washington Football Team last spring. However, Washington cut him and Sean Davis soon found his way back to Pittsburgh in 2020.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2021

Davis has started 42 games over five seasons with the Steelers. He obviously knows Keith Butler’s system and, to reiterate, has position flexibility. Speaking of which, Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton are set to enter free agency and both — particularly Hilton — figure to earn fairly substantial raises. With the cap-strapped Steelers looking to save money any way they can, maybe Sean Davis can be the surprising answer for the slot corner position in 2021.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2021

While often flashing great playmaking ability, Davis has also been inconsistent during his career in Pittsburgh. The Steelers decision to bring Sean Davis back was a telling, but what was more telling was the fact that Sean Davis almost never saw the field save for the season finale against Cleveland.

You can’t find a stronger sign that it’s in Davis’s best interest to move on and for the Steelers to do the same.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Davis in 2021

Davis should be fairly inexpensive to retain. The deal he signed with Washington last year was for $4 million, and I don’t see him being able to command anything close to that in 2021.

  • The Steelers could do worse than Davis in terms of someone with position flexibility.

At the very least, he provides adequate depth in the secondary and can do double duty on special teams. The Steelers need to find their bargains this year in free agency and Sean Davis would look to be one of them. 

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Keeping Cam Sutton in Free Agency is a Challenge Steelers Must Meet

The “story” on the Pittsburgh Steelers since they lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV has been, “Can Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin rebuild the defense while Ben Roethlisberger remains in his prime?”

  • And no position has been more challenging for the Steelers than cornerback.

Keenan Lewis developed slowly and by the time he got good, he was gone. The Steelers thought they had “the answer” in Cortez Allen, until injuries and mystery conspired to sabotage his career. Joe Haden‘s arrival in 2017 changed things at cornerback for the better, but then fate dealt a mortal blow to the Steelers defensive rebuild:  Ryan Shazier suffered a career ending injury.

But on of the unmentioned ironies accompanying Ryan Shazier’s tragic injury is that the night also marked the NFL debut of another promising cornerback for Pittsburgh, Cam Sutton who is in the spot light today.

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

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

Capsule Profile of Cam Sutton’s Career with the Steelers in 2021

As part of such a high-profile Steelers 2017 draft class that included T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee, was a bit of a forgot man, even if he did play a position — cornerback — that was still considered to be problematic for Pittsburgh.

Perhaps it would have been different had the Steelers not signed Joe Haden that summer. Furthermore, Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss, came out of nowhere that same year and took the Steelers secondary by storm as a very productive slot corner. Sutton spent his first few seasons increasing his position flexibility at the corner position, the slot corner position and even at safety.

However, it was in 2020 that Sutton finally had a bit of a breakthrough, appearing in 16 games and starting six at cornerback. Sutton recorded one interception, eight passes defended and 30 tackles a season ago. That he did this in the final year of his rookie deal certainly makes him much more attractive in free agency.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton in 2021

Again, Sutton has position flexibility, something that has always been a valuable commodity to head coach Mike Tomlin. Of course, the position the Steelers would likely need Sutton to fill in 2021 is slot corner, and that is because it seems highly unlikely that they’ll be able to retain the services of Hilton, who is considered one of the best in the business.

Mike Hilton is going to command big money on the open market. Sutton will certainly get a raise, but if the Steelers can retain him at a reasonable price, he could fill a huge void in 2021.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton in 2021

Honestly, the only negative would be the fact that Sutton put himself on the map in 2020 and could really cash in on the open market. Life is all about timing, and if some team presents Cam Sutton with an offer that he simply can’t refuse, the Steelers probably wouldn’t have the cap space to compete.

Curtain’s Call on Cam Sutton in 2021

I think the Steelers should do whatever they can within reason to retain Sutton. They spent years trying to rebuild their secondary, and I can’t imagine how much weaker it could be if their top two slot corners from a year ago exited via free agency.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Ben Roethlisberger’s Returning. Here are Best, Worst and Most Likely Scenarios for the Steelers

Now that Ben Roethlisberger has confirmed he’s coming back, we can start making some projections as to how this decision will play out….

…OK, the Steelers still need to weather free agency and then hit the 2021 NFL Draft.

These are two huge variables that will have an impact on the 2021 season. But here is a look at Worst, Best and Most Realistic Scenarios for the Steelers in light of Ben Roethlisberger’s return for the 2021 season.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images via The SteelersWire

Worst Case Scenario for Ben Roethlisberger’s Return

The risks of a Roethlisberger return are real. Here’s a worst case scenario:

  • Ben never gets comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm.
  • Therefore, he’s limited to the short passing game.
  • Defenses catch on. Except this time it doesn’t take them 2 months.
  • Worse yet, the Steelers can’t rebuild their offensive line nor field a strong running game.
  • The defense, is good, but Alex Highsmith looks like the 2nd coming of Jarvis Jones

If that happens 2021 autumn will drag on. The Steelers could perhaps sniff a playoff spot, but in the hyper-competitive AFC North, they could easily find themselves in a knockdown, drag out fight to avoid finishing 4th place.

If Ben Roethlisberger never finds his comfort zone with the “bionics” of his new arm, then even an 8-8 or 9-7 effort is likely the best case outcome, which would have a snowball effect, in that the Steelers would drafting in the middle, rather than early in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Best Case Scenario for Ben Roethlisberger’s Return

Here’s a best case scenario for a Ben Roethlisberger return:

  • Ben gains comfort with the “bionics” of his new arm.
  • Matt Canada can unleash Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson downfield. James Washington flourishes.
  • Zach Banner resigns. A new center is found.
  • The Steelers offensive line recaptures glory of old.
  • Pittsburgh gets a legitimate number 1 running back forcing defenses to respect the run.
  • Alex Highsmith flashes LaMarr Woodley like potential
  • Joe Haden doesn’t lose a step. Sutton resigns. The defense is dominant.

Wishful thinking? Maybe.

But towards the end of the awful 6-10 2003 campaign, Bob Labriola reflected on the Steelers woe and mused that “offensive lineman don’t grow on trees” and liked the Steelers road to improvement to an overweight person’s battle to get fit – don’t expect it to happen over night.

But the Steelers did field a strong offensive line in 2004, their defense got better, and they finished 15-1.

Most Realistic Scenario for Ben Roethlisberger’s Return

As someone who supported bringing Ben Roethlisberger back in 2021, the most realistic scenario return lies somewhere in between the best and worst case. It would look like this:

  • Ben Roethlisberger falls into a rut, of struggling early in games and then getting hot
  • The Steelers offensive line is better (how can get be worse) but Ben’s immobility is an issue
  • Alex Highsmith looks like the next Jason Worilds
  • Mike Hilton is back, but Cam Sutton is not
  • Joe Haden still has something left in the tank, but often needs safety help
  • Tyson Alualu returns, mans the middle like a champ, then gets hurt and is lost for the season

With that in mind, the most likely end game for the 2021 Steelers is that Pittsburgh is competitive, makes the playoffs, but falls short. The God’s honest truth is that this is the most likely scenario.

But its also true that the Steelers their chances for making run at Lombardi Number 7 are far better with Ben Roethlisberger than with Mason Rudolph.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Tracker – Pittsburgh Navigates Rough Waters

2013’s Steelers Free Agent Focus article started with a quote and a clip from the Dark Knight Rises. The Steelers were coming off of an 8-8 finish, their first no-winning effort of the Tomlin years, and Kevin Colbert had committed to change. Moreover, the Steelers were in salary cap purgatory, forcing them to attempt addition by subtraction.

  • While the context is different this year, the Steelers salary cap situation is actually worse.

So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:

There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.

The final number of the 2021 NFL salary cap remains undefined. Its floor is 180 million and some suspect it could go up by 2 or 3 million more. The Steelers need every penny they get, having planned for a salary cap of a about 220 million.

Thanks to Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald’s retirements, Cam Heyward‘s contract restructure, Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract that gives the Steelers an additonal 15 million dollars in salary cap space this year, the Steelers might not need to cut players just to get into compliance.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Steelers 2021 Free Agents

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in September 22, at Levi Stadium. Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So fortunately, life will not imitate art here: They’ll be no literal blowing up of the Steelers roster to mimic the cinematic destruction of Heinz Field.

  • But the Steelers have a horrendously long list of free agents, and must say good bye to far too many of them for comfort.

Free agency is almost here and staff writer Tony Defeo and I are doing profiles of each player.

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus Profiles

Bud Dupree, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs with Tennessee Titans, 3/15/2021
J.C. Hassenauer, Center, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Hassenauer to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Robert Spillane to one year deal, 3/12/21
Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver/Returner, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers sign McCloud to 1 year deal, 3/11/21
Ola Adeniyi, Outside Linebacker, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers decline to offer RFA tender to Adeniyi
Marcus Allen, Safety/Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Marcus Allen to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
James Conner, Running Back, Unrestricted Free Agent
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Reciever, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign JuJu for 1 year contract, 3/19/21
Cam Sutton, Cornerback Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, 3/15/21
Alejandro Villanueva, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Zach Banner, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign Zach Banner to 2 year deal, 3/17/2021
Matt Feiler, Offensive Guard/Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jordan Dangerfield, Safety/special teams, Unrestricted Free Agent
Sean Davis, Safety, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jayrone Elliot, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Signs 2 year deal with Steelers, 3/27/21
Avery Williamson, Inside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Unrestricted Free Agent
Mike Hilton, Cornerback, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs contract with Bengals, 3/18/21
Chris Wromley, Defensive Tackle, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 2 year contract with Steelers, 3/22/21
Cassius Marsh, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 1 year contract with Steelers, 3/24/21

Here is the list of Steelers free agents we’ve yet to profile:

2021 Unrestricted Free Agents

Jerald Hawkins, Offensive Tackle
Danny Isidora, Guard
Jordan Berry, Punter

With his back against the wall, Kevin Colbert did a respectable job at managing the Steelers free agency situation and put together a decent opening day roster. However, injuries would ravage that roster where it could least afford them, leading to a 2-6.

That 2-6 start however led to a 6-2 finish, which set the franchise up for its second, albeit failed Super Bowl run of the Roethlisberger era. But many of those personnel moves set the team up for its late season comeback.

Can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin do something along those lines that allows the Steelers to contend for a Super Bowl in 2021?

The odds are against it, but try they will, and we will cover it as they do.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Should Steelers Sign J.J. Watt? No, They Must Address More Pressing Needs

J.J. Watt, one of the faces of the NFL and the best player in the history of the Houston Texans’ franchise, was released by the team on Friday per Watt’s request.

If you’re a Steelers fan, that likely means you want Pittsburgh to bring Watt to town so he can be reunited with his younger brothers, T.J. Watt and Derek Watt.

  • Would it make sense for the Steelers to sign Watt? Duh.

He’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and while he’s clearly already played his best football, at 31, Watt is the same age as Cam Heyward and appears to have some good years left. But would it work schematically? I don’t know much, but I do know that any defensive coach worth his salt BETTER make Watt fit into his system. Otherwise, he probably shouldn’t be a defensive coach in the NFL.

  • Of course, J.J. Watt would be a great fit for the Steelers defense.

For that matter, the eldest Watt brother would be a great fit for Pittsburgh and would arguably be the biggest sports star in town the moment he arrived.

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

In terms of charisma, T.J., someone who seems to be more James Harrison than he is Joey Porter, pales in comparison to his big brother. No, J.J. would be great for the Steelers and Steeler Nation…in theory.

But there is the matter of finding the creative financing to make such a deal work. As you know, the Steelers find themselves firmly in salary cap hell and are still millions above the projected number for 2021, this despite only having 30-plus players under contract.

Team president Art Rooney II has already stated that the Steelers can’t have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back for 2021 under his current deal. At first, it appeared that a simple restructuring, something the Steelers’ executives have become experts at, would be the compromise between team and player. Now, it appears that the smart money is on Roethlisberger agreeing to take less money if he wants to come back next year.

If the Steelers figure all that out with their aging franchise quarterback and are able to free up enough cap space to sign J.J. Watt, why not use that money to address more pressing areas of the team?

For example, if the Steelers could get J.J. Watt to sign with them for $10 million a year, couldn’t they convince Tyson Alualu, a pending free agent, to stay in Pittsburgh for much less? The Steelers would still have a more than formidable defensive line and, oh yes, they could perhaps use that extra money to sign slot corner Mike Hilton.

  • What about signing another tight end in free agency following the retirement of Vance McDonald?

Speaking of retirements, long-time center Maurkice Pouncey finally announced his on Friday after 11 mostly glorious years. Pouncey’s departure weakens an offensive line that was already in decline. Wouldn’t it be smarter to use that J.J. Watt money to shore up the center position?

There could be other factors involved, don’t get me wrong. Maybe Pittsburgh feels the need to lure J.J. to town just so it will be easier to lock T.J. into a lock-term deal when the time finally comes.

  • Finally, I hate to call a player of J.J. Watt’s caliber and legacy a luxury signing, but I think his addition to the team would be just that.

The Steelers have more pressing needs than another great defensive lineman. If they’re going to open up a new line of credit in the form of contract restructurings and player releases, perhaps they should use it more responsibly.

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Does Randy Fichtner’s Firing Foreshadow Change for Ben Roethlisberger?

When asked about staffing changes at his post-season press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was coy:

We haven’t had any of those discussions. Change is a part of our business. I’ll acknowledge the possibility of that. We are just beginning the process of having those types of meaty discussions that usually produce changes or non-changes. And so, it is that time of year. I anticipate those discussions happening and happening rather soon as we plot a course to move forward.

Apparently “pretty soon” must have meant “as I speak,” because less than 24 hours later news broke that the Steelers would not be renewing the contracts of (read firing) offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley.

Steelers tight ends coach James Daniels also announced his retirement. None of these moves are a shock, but one might foreshadow far bigger changes to come.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger,

Randy Fichtner and Ben Roethlisberger during happier times. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

Fichtner and Sarrett – From Fixers to Problems to be Fixed

Randy Fichtner first worked with Mike Tomlin in the late 1990’s when they both coached at Arkansas State University. He joined the Steelers staff in 2007 as wide receivers coach and kept a low profile.

After the 2009 season, when Tomlin resisted pressure to fire Bruce Arians, he shifted Randy Fichtner to quarterbacks coach. At the time, he was assumed to be the offensive coordinator in waiting. But Mike Tomlin passed over Fitchner in favor of Todd Haley when Art Rooney II forced Bruce Arians out in 2011. Fichtner again faded into the background.

  • Yet in the middle of the 2017 season, an unfamiliar face appeared on the Steelers sidelines.

Who was that bearded man talking to Ben Roethlisberger when the defense was on the field? It was none other than quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner who’d come down from the booth. Word was he was there to serve as a buffer between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley.

Whether it was because of Fichtner’s presence or not, Ben Roethlisberger went from playing the worst football of his in the first half of his career to playing the best football of his career. When the season was over and Todd Haley was fired, Mike Tomlin immediately promoted Fichtner

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Under Fichtner, the Steelers 2018 offense took some time to find its stride then enjoyed success in the middle of the season, only to falter when James Conner got injured. In 2019, Fichtner was forced to play Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges along with other 2nd line players and the unit struggled.

In 2020, the offense started strong, but the running game faltered during October, allowing defense to suffocate the short passing game.

Conspicuously enough during both 2019 and 2020 the Steelers offensive line began the season doing reasonably well in run blocking, only to see that part of their game slip well below the line by mid season.

  • That is likely the reason why Jason Sarrett also got a pink slip.

Jason Sarrett joined the Steelers in 2012 as an offensive line assistant. In 2013, the Steelers offensive line had a horrendous start to the year, but steadily improved during the season. When offensive line coach Jack Bicknell was fired at season’s end Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that it was Sarrett, and not Bicknell who’d mentored the young line along.

Sarrett didn’t get the offensive line coaching job during that off season, which went instead to Mike Munchak.

Brady’s Dismissal a Surprise

Based on performance, Tom Bradley’s dismissal is the only surprise. Tom Bradley replaced Carnell Lake who left after the 2017 season and the Steelers secondary has improved since his arrival.

Certainly, his tenure had its share of disappointments – Sean Davis’ shift to free safety was OK but he never recovered his rookie form; Artie Burns continued to regress and Terrell Edmunds, while improving, still hasn’t lived up to his first round potential.

But Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton have blossomed under his guidance, and Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick have been difference makers for this defense.

A Sign of Bigger Changes to Come?

It is no secret that the Steelers fired Todd Haley in large part to keep Ben Roethlisberger happy. Nor is it a secret that he has a close relationship with Randy Fichtner, just as he had a close relationship with Bruce Arians.

But the fact that Randy Fichtner is gone indicates at the very least that the Steelers as an organization won’t bend over backwards to keep Ben Roethlisberger happy and to entice him to keep playing. Beyond that, this move could help hasten Roethlisberger’s retirement decision.

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Do Steelers Playoff Hopes Hinge on Alex Highsmith Imitating Ziggy Hood? Actually, They Might!

If the Pittsburgh Steelers are to surprise the skeptics and make a serious Super Bowl run they’re going to need players like Alex Highsmith to find a little something extra during the playoffs. There are signs that Highsmith might already being doing that.

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Highsmith’s pressure helped force Mike Hilton’s interception. Later, Highsmith helped pressure Rivers into throwing incomplete on 4th down. Against the Browns, Highsmith’s sack of Baker Mayfield helped stop Cleveland’s 2 minute drill cold.

These trends are encouraging and Alex Highsmith must build on this in the playoffs by following in the footsteps of Ziggy Hood

…Yep, you read that right!

Ziggy Hood Teases at Becoming the “Special Man”

Ziggy Hood was of course the Steelers 1st round draft pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, number 32 overall due to the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. It is both unfair and incorrect to hang the label “bust” on Ziggy Hood (if you really think he was a bust, I invite you to Google Keith Gary, Daryl Simms or Aaron Jones).

  • But if that’s true, its also true that Ziggy Hood disappointed.

Just as Walter Abercrombie had the ignominious fate to replace Franco Harris, Ziggy Hood was drafted to replace Aaron Smith, one of the game’s best 3-4 defensive ends. Ziggy Hood wasn’t up to the task.

  • However, for a time it seemed like he might be the time Ziggy “…Became the special man”

When injuries ended Aaron Smith’s 2010 season, this site declared that Ziggy Hood’s moment had arrived, leading off the post with the quote ““When the kids had killed the man/I had to break up the band” from David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” The idea was Smith’s injury signaled the end of an era on the Steelers defensive line, and that a torch was being passed

With 20/20 hindsight, it would seem like Ziggy Hood fumbled the moment and then it was gone. But that’s not true. Ziggy Hood just couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle.

But Ziggy Hood enjoyed one great flash in his career and that flash came right when the Steelers needed it the most.

  • Hood took over from Aaron Smith at the end of October and authored a pretty ho-hum November.

But he came alive in December, sacking Joe Flacco in the Steelers AFC North Division clinching win over the Ravens. He followed that with sacks in the Steelers win over the Panthers two weeks later and in the 2010 season finale win over the Browns. And if you’re tempted to write off that as garbage time glory in meaningless games then consider what Hood did in the playoffs.

Ziggy Hood, Aaron Rodgers, LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, Super Bowl XLV

Ziggy Hood sacks Aaron Rodgers in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

In the Steelers 2010 Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens, Hood sacked Joe Flacco on 3rd and 10 with 1:15 left to play, setting up a 4th and 18 which Baltimore failed to convert. In Super Bowl XLV he sacked Aaron Rodgers on Green Bay’s final drive.

For those of you counting at home, that’s 5 Ziggy Hood sacks, several coming at critical moments during 8 must-win games for the Steelers.

Never would Ziggy Hood broach that level of production again.

The Playoffs Can Prime Players to Step Up

Long term, if Alex Highsmith succeeds in Bud Dupree his career ceiling will need to be higher than Ziggy Hood’s. But the take away from Hood’s story is that the playoffs can coax the best out certain players.

During the Steelers 2010 playoff run offensive tackle Jonathan Scott also enjoyed his career peak as had as offensive guard Darnell Stapleton during the Steelers 2008 run to Super Bowl XLIII.

Go back further, and you’ll find that that a good regular-season Merril Hoge became playoff great with 100 yard games for the 1989 Steelers in their upset Wild Card win over the Oilers and heartbreaking loss to the Broncos.

  • It doesn’t always work this way of course as we’ll detail in a future story.

But if Alex Highsmith can step it up and help T.J. Watt give the Steelers defense the 1-2 punch on the edge that they enjoyed with Bud Dupree healthy, Pittsburgh’s road to Super Bowl glory will become much more plausible.

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