Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Safety – Depth Unsafe beyond Minkah, Edmunds

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 Hilton and 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, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

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

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThis 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

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Steelers Justin Layne Arrested – Better Today than After the Draft

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’s Ray 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, Steelers vs Cardinals

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.

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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.

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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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. 

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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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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