Kozora: Steelers Free Agent Wishlist (Defense)

2018 free agency is just a few weeks away. We know the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t in the greatest cap situation but they still could make a couple signings. As is their norm, don’t expect big-names to sign here, but there’s still players who may be available as cheap, depth signings I would like to see the team have interest in. You saw the offense earlier. Here’s the defense.


Why It’s A Need: Daniel McCullers’ career in Pittsburgh is over. The team almost always carries 6 DL, leaving one vacancy.

Who Fits: Two names come to mind.

Stefan Charles/Kansas City Chiefs – Charles is technically a Chief after getting picked up around playoff time, though he didn’t make any appearances for them.

Charles has spent most of his career in a 4-3 but always played the one or three tech. And the Chiefs thought of him enough to add him to their 3-4.

His career snaps…are fine. Certainly nothing that’s blowing you away but we’re talking about a 6th DL on the team. You’re not going to get an All-Star to come here.

On tape, he has the functional strength to anchor at the point of attack. I like his hand use and placement, an effective punch and sheds with a violent, two-handed shrug. Creates space against OL in the run game and has above average effort to the ball. Balance to beat cut blocks.

In 2015, watch Charles (#96) create space with his length against LT Jason Peters, shed the block, and make the tackle.

He is a marginal pass rusher who isn’t particularly quick out of his stance, not much snap to his game and when he wins with his punch, has trouble finishing the play due to a lack of athleticism and bend.

Think he’s best fit as a one-tech and often only played the three due to scheme. Teams that would sugar their ILBs in both A gaps, which was kicking out the DL into the B gap.

Beyond what I’ve seen, there’s a good connection to bring him in, too. In 2015 with Buffalo, Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers hire, was his defensive line coach. So you have a vet who knows his system and Dunbar’s teachings. Obviously, Dunbar isn’t running the show of who gets signed, but it’s a logical place to start and not a bad idea to bring in one of his guys.

I’m not going to write a novel about him but I still wouldn’t mind Leger Douzable, my white whale from a few years ago, get brought in. Another guy Dunbar coached and was very high on at the start of his career, where he spent a few weeks in Minnesota before the Giants poached him.

If I was the GM, Charles would come in to compete for that final DL spot. Might even be outside looking in. He’ll have to prove he’s a better option in the middle than L.T. Walton.

John Hughes/New Orleans Saints – Again, a similar dude to Charles, though I think Hughes is a tick more athletic and spent 2017 in the league, for whatever that’s worth. He’s definitely a pure nose tackle, and was used as such, who shows good play strength and works hard to get down the line on stretch/perimeter runs. Brings some energy/passion to the field. Hand use and lower body movement to fight through blocks in the run game though he needs to be more consistent in shedding. Noticeably bad there as a pass rusher and definitely someone you only want on the field in the Steelers’ base 3-4 and goal line packages.

Here’s Hughes, #92, walking back the center and not giving Todd Gurley anywhere to run to.

Steelers know him well. Drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2012. Steelers also brought him for a visit so we have a connection there.

If signed, he’d be in a similar spot as Charles. However, I like Hughes better than Charles and he has a better chance of sticking on the roster.


Why It’s A Need: For obvious reasons. Someone has to replace Ryan Shazier.

Who Fits: Watched several players. Came away with three guys I’d like to target. If I can’t get any of them, I’d probably just wait until the draft. These are in order of who I want the most.

Anthony Hitchens/Dallas Cowboys – Hitchens was one of the last players I observed. But one of the best. Not billed or tested as a great athlete coming out of Iowa, he sure looked the part in the NFL. Someone I believe can be a three-down linebacker, even if he wasn’t always used there in Dallas. However, he was kept on the field when there were injuries to Sean Lee.

Played MIKE linebacker in their 4-3. Violent, physical player who wants to make splash plays. Always looking to rip the ball out. Big hitter vs the pass, run, and when asked to blitz.

Has the athleticism to be the middle hole defense in Cover 2 and run with guys down the seam. Good anticipation and processing versus the run, works hard to remove himself from blocks, and a determined player without glaring issues.

Let’s look at him in coverage. Here, Hitchens feels the over route from the tight end coming to him. Flips his hips and carries it. These over routes have hurt the Steelers in the past and they’ve tried to defend it with a safety (creating other problems). Hitchens can help.

Look at his physicality. Decleator over the middle on the receiver. That’s one way to reroute him.

The Cowboys have stated they want to bring him back. But if they can’t, he might be a low-cost option. Over the Cap pegged him as making $4 million per season, ultra-cheap for a guy you think can be an every-down Mack linebacker.

No doubt in my mind he’s your Day One, Mack LB who can play every down. You don’t even need to draft one very high anymore. Can wait until the third-fourth round.

Avery Williamson/Tennessee Titans – One of the more household names on this list. Williamson would be familiar with the Steelers’ system after playing under Dick LeBeau. Though he wasn’t an every-down linebacker last season, removed for a mid-round rookie, he was used in that way back in 2016. And I think he has the skillset to translate. Rangy, sideline-to-sideline player. I don’t think he’s as strong in coverage as Hitchens is, not going to fare as well in man to man, but you’re not going to get a perfect replacement for Shazier.

See his sideline-to-sideline range to track down the back on the edge, preventing a good run from being a great one. He’s #54.

Just wish there were more impact plays of his in the passing game. Didn’t see much of it and I think that’s one reason why he was replaced last year. The other concern is price tag. Sounds like he is going to cost more than someone like Hitchens. And there may be more competition for him, too.

Williamson would also be the starting Mack LB. Probably your every down guy but I have slightly less confidence in him than I do Hitchens.

Josh Bynes/Arizona Cardinals – This is the name I teased when I mentioned a name no one else has talked about (though Hitchens has barely been mentioned, too). Bynes was someone I knew really nothing about. He wasn’t even signed by Arizona until the preseason and spent most of the year on the bench.

But after Deone Bucannon got hurt and missed two games, Bynes stepped in and did a fantastic job. 17 tackles, 1 pass breakup, 1 FF. He did so well the team felt compelled to carve out a role for him even when Bucannon returned. Bynes replaced Karlos Dansby in their two-minute defense and he rewarded them with a game-sealing INT against Tennessee in Week 14.

Or here, in Week 12. He gets called for PI but I thought it was a bad call. Come across the field to get to the inside hip of the TE, play the pocket, break the throw up.

Looking at him in the run game. Center can’t climb to him, Bynes fills his gap, holds onto Gurley to tackle him for a three yard loss. Read the play, make the play.

Bruce Arians raved about his play and leadership.

“I can’t say enough about him right now, the way he’s playing,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s one of our best leaders out there running our defense. Good communication. He’s gotten better and better at it. Really, really pleased with him.”

Leadership and clear communication are two traits the Steelers missed after Shazier. And Bynes said he was thriving in the Cardinals’ aggressive, 3-4 scheme. Pittsburgh would be a great fit for him.

“I love that part,” Bynes told the Cardinals website in December, referring to their aggression. “They don’t make us be robots. As long as you fit and you see something, just go. I like that. It lets us play football.”

He’s a little older and not quite the athlete of Hitchens/Williamson but at a cheaper price tag. Sneaky good fit.

If signed, Bynes would enter as the favorite for the Mack position. But I would have a safety net of a second or third round ILB in case, and also for the long haul.


Why It’s A Need: Again, pretty obvious. Team looking for starters and depth.

Who Fits: Like ILB, there are two names who jump to mind. One you know…one you don’t.

Tre Boston/Los Angeles Chargers – He’s the one that’s been mentioned on the wishlist a couple times here and places beyond. Boston was recruited by the Steelers last year and is set to be a FA again. It is a little weird teams keep trying to dump him but his tape looks good.

A nice blend of the strengths of Mike Mitchell without some of his flaws. Better range, athlete, and ball skills, but nearly as impactful of a hitter. Free safety in this clip. Look how quickly he heads the route concept, drives downhill, and creates the incompletion on third down. Instincts.

It’s no surprise he picked off five passes last season. Combined, the Steelers safeties had a total of five. Those splash plays are certainly needed.

I guess the biggest concern is if he wants to come here. Last year, the Steelers came in third place with Boston considering Buffalo more heavily before opting to sign with LA. And I imagine there will be some market for him, too.

Clearly, your starting FS if I were to sign him.

Keith Tandy/Tampa Bay Buccaneers – I know the Steelers already traded for one Bucs safety last year and obviously, that didn’t work out. Maybe Tandy wasn’t available or available for the right price. That makes sense, given the huge 2016 he was coming off of. But for whatever reason, he didn’t see the field very much last year and there’s a good chance he’ll at least test free agency.

He’s similar to Boston. I think a little worse in coverage but I consider him an upgrade over Mitchell. In this clip, he carries #2 on a wheel down the sideline, gets his head around, and picks the ball off.

That’s from 2016, where Tandy came on super strong at the end. Four interceptions over the final five games, and even though he didn’t record a pick, almost single-handedly won the New Orleans Saints game.

The Steelers, like others on this list, showed interest in Tandy coming out. Played QB in high school, mostly cornerback at West Virginia. Steelers brought him in for a pre-draft visit. Then the Bucs drafted him and wound up playing him at safety. Should be cheap. Likely FS if I were to ink him to a deal.

Michael Thomas/Miami Dolphins – Yes, I can count. I know I said there were only two safeties who interested me. I love Thomas, though I don’t see him as a fit to be a starting FS the way Boston or Tandy could. Thomas is more of a Swiss army knife. I don’t know exactly what I’d do with him. But there’s a lot I could try. He’s played strong safety, a little free, a hybrid player, nickel corner, and top level special teamer.

The special team aspect really makes me want to sign him. Using Pro Football Reference’s Play Index, from 2014 to 2017, he has racked up a ridiculous 46 special teams tackles. Here they are year by year.

2017: 9
2016: 17
2015: 11
2014: 9

For comparison, Roosevelt Nix, who you know I adore, has never had more than eight tackles in a season.

You gotta figure out a way to get him on defense to get him to want to sign somewhere else. Maybe that is in the dime role (what happens with Cam Sutton? I know, tougher to figure out). Maybe you run the full-blown 2-2-7 Keith Butler showed a few plays of, especially if ILB doesn’t get solved the way it needs to be. Maybe you open up the SS job with Sean Davis. I dunno. But he’s a special teams demon and offers something on defense. That’s really attractive.

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