There are many in Steeler Nation who no doubt spent some time yesterday, and probably today as well, celebrating the release of three veterans from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary. The defensive backfield tends to shoulder most of the blame for the Steelers’ struggles in recent years, not without justification.
The biggest shoe to fall was Mike Mitchell, their starting free safety for the past four years. The 30-year-old was entering the final year of a five-year deal that included a $5 million base salary. He is the only starter of the group to be released.
William Gay, an 11-year veteran, saw his role reduced to that of dime back last season after Mike Hilton emerged in the slot, and that, along with the growth of other young players, made him expendable. Joining him on the waiver wire was six-year veteran safety Robert Golden, who, while primarily a special teams player, started a number of games as well. He entered the 2016 season as a starter at strong safety.
While none of these players, at least at this point in their careers, would be mistaken for elite talents, there is one thing to consider about their collective release, and that is that it leaves the secondary quite bare of continuity and veteran experience.
Of the 12 defensive backs on the 90-man roster, not a single one of them has spent more than two seasons on the team’s 53-man roster at any point of their careers. The longest-tenured defensive back on the team currently is actually Jordan Dangerfield, technically a second-year player. He has been with the team for the past four offseasons but only spent the 2016 season on the 53-man roster. He was on the practice squad a year ago.
Of course, there are the two high draft picks from 2016, cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis. Needless to say, given when they were drafted, they have only been in the league, and on the team, for the past two seasons. Mike Hilton, their starter in the slot, was undrafted in 2016 and spent part of that year on the team’s practice squad before making the 53-man roster in 2017.
Everybody else has been here for less than a year. Coty Sensabaugh was a 2017 free agent, while Joe Haden was signed in August, and J.J. Wilcox was traded for in August, as was Dashaun Phillips. Antonio Crawford spent one day in training camp before being injured and spending the year on injured reserve. Malik Golden was injured in training camp and waived. Both were undrafted rookies.
Last and certainly not least were last year’s draft picks, cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen. It was no doubt in large part driven by the growth and optimism around these two players that these moves were made—both of them have been mentioned as candidates to play safety as well.
But in the meantime, the Steelers are moving forward with a relatively young secondary that doesn’t have much continuity to it. And considering that communication was their biggest issue a year ago, well…