The Pittsburgh Steelers did what was necessary yesterday in making official the release of J.J. Wilcox, the veteran safety for whom they traded late last offseason. The team offered their 2018 seventh-round draft pick, but also received a 2019 seventh-round pick in return along with the player.
Those who follow me know that I considered this move a virtual inevitability some time ago, at least after they signed Morgan Burnett and Nat Burhe. There was talk about them potentially viewing him as a contingency option to start after Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden were released—the door was reportedly even left open for Mitchell to return—but that always struck me as incredibly unlikely.
Once the Steelers brought in Burnett and Burhe, Wilcox’s fate was sealed. With Sean Davis on the roster, they at that point already had three safeties who were definitely going to be on the roster and were going to dress, with Wilcox, making over $3 million in salary, not in a position to start.
I don’t think anybody realistically though that the team would come out of this draft without a safety. It didn’t even have to be a safety in the first round, but any reasonably high draft pick would have all but sealed Wilcox’s release, pushing him to the number five slot without a starting role and having been demoted on special teams the year before.
The only way to have salvaged his roster spot would have been to agree to a pay cut. There have been no reports that the team actually approached him about reducing his salary, but that’s immaterial at this point because his salary is now $0 (though he has a comparably small dead money charge).
The Steelers were optimistic about him early on though. With Mitchell ailing to start the season, he was given the opportunity to rotate at free safety in the first game. He missed the second after he suffered a concussion in a failed attempt to jar the ball loose at the goal line to prevent a touchdown reception, but he continued to play for the next two weeks and even started one of those games.
After that? He hardly played at all, but Golden did receive time. the veteran Steelers regained his role as the backup safety, while Wilcox got a few snaps here and there on special teams. But he found himself a healthy scratch by season’s end, on a roster with only four safeties, following a rash of penalties.
The addition of at least one safety in the draft was inevitable (though I must acknowledge that the same was thought of at linebacker). It was only a matter of time before Pittsburgh addressed the position and even further reduced the veteran safety’s value.
One could argue the team could have done him a favor by releasing him sooner than they had. I think the fact that they did not does mean that there was still a window of opportunity for him to stay, but it probably would have taken a worst-case draft scenario for that to happen. As it is, they may already have an issue fitting in their five safeties following the additions of Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen.