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Kozora: Steelers Free Agent Wishlist (Defense)

Just as we did yesterday with the offense, my free agency wishlist for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. This is the side of the ball you can reasonably expect them to make a sizable, aggressive move. It’s a combination of players I like, ones who fit the team needs, and names the team has shown interest during their draft process.

Let me know your thoughts and who’d you would like to see added to the list below. Didn’t want to put every name on this list but there are definitely others out there worth diving into.

Defensive Line

Corey Liuget/Los Angeles Chargers: D-line isn’t the biggest need and slightly lessened by Tyson Alualu’s re-signing but an upgrade there for the #3 spot is possible and there’s still an opening at nose tackle.

Liguet would be a higher-end replacement to be that #3 defensive end. The Chargers declined his 5th year option and though the team seems open to re-signing him, he may want to peek at the market. Coming of a torn quad operated on in late November will definitely take his price down.

But turn on the tape and you see impressive moments. He shows above average snap off the ball and quality hand use, the ability to punch and disengage from blockers at the point of attack. Able to one and two gap and chases the ball hard. Liguet can line up and down the defensive line.

Plus, he’s a first round pick and the Steelers sure like their outside free agents/trades to have high pedigrees. That’s what Alualu was, a former top ten pick of the Jags a decade ago.

Kyle Love/Carolina Panthers: If you’re in search of an interior run plugger, then you want a guy like Love. Wide body, stout against the run with enough hand use to work off base blocks. Able to play B gap to B gap effectively. Like his ability to repunch, position his hands, and take control of blocks. Though he doesn’t make a ton of tackles, his hit power and ability to force the ball out is impressive. Three forced fumbles on just 19 tackles in 2018.

There is a little somethin’ somethin’ as a pass rusher. Watch him swim the right guard, force the fumble, and recover it Week 16 against Atlanta.

Mike Pennel/New York Jets: Pennel is a guy I’ve thought about for a couple offseasons now. The Jets gave him too much money last year and the Steelers thought it was smart to bring Daniel McCullers back. It was not. Cut by New York – so he won’t count against the comp formula, if you’re worried about that kind of thing – he’s probably not going to go for much. Like Love, mostly a one-dimensional run stuffer but the ability to push the pocket if he gets one-on-one with the center. Shows effort for a big man, too.

Rodney Gunter/Arizona Cardinals: Interior pass rusher with some end/tackle capability. Powerful strike and good hand use to beat centers and guards. Check out him toast center Mitch Morse, one of the top free agents on the market, this year. Love how he’s able to push up Morse’s wrist with his right hand to defeat the block.

Breakout season and the first impactful one since his rookie year, finishing with 4.5 sacks. Biggest concern would be cost. May be too pricey and not want to play third/fourth fiddle. But if his market’s cooled, I’m interested.

Zach Moore/Arizona Cardinals: I’m all for stealing some of the Cardinals’ players, revenge for a place lovingly referred to Pittsburgh West. Brief career for Moore, barely getting on the field until 2018, and a definite hybrid piece, a big guy you can stand up on the edge and move around on third downs. Can play some three technique, too. Finished last year with 3.5 sacks on just 245 total snaps last season. Should be really cheap. Not an ideal scheme fit, I know, but the scheme has become so blurred. I envision him as that third down pass rusher whereas Alualu would see more early down work. Keeps everyone fresh.

Outside Linebacker

Markus Golden/Arizona Cardinals: Ultimately, he may be out of the Steelers price range. Hard to figure out what he’ll command. A top tier pass rusher at one point in his career, rolling up 12.5 in 2016 but tore his ACL the next year and has only 2.5 sacks in his last 15 starts.

I still see an explosive player with the ability to rip and flatten to the corner. Experience playing with his hand up and down, the Steelers will use T.J. Watt and Anthony Chickillo with their hand down on some third and longs, and saw plenty of time moving around the front, used on games and stunts. Nice job getting skinny and pressuring up the A gap.

Pittsburgh brought him in for a visit before the draft too so there’s a clear connection there.

Eli Harold/Detroit Lions: The outside linebacker market is slim pickings and the names who do make sense, Preston Smith and Shaq Barrett, will be too expensive with the team, presumably, keeping Bud Dupree. Better off to hope Ola Adeniyi develops and re-sign Anthony Chickillo to be the #4 and core special teamer.

I mostly am picking Harold because…he’s cheap. And he’s a classic Tomlin 757 guy. Arthur Moats. Justin Hunter. Mike Vick. B.W. Webb. All free agents from the Virginia Beach area and that’s not even counting draft picks like Shamarko Thomas. Harold calls Virginia Beach home.

Harold picked things up a bit last year despite not logging an official start, finishing with four sacks for the Detroit Lions. They generally weren’t high quality, cleanup and coverage variety, but it keeps his price tag down to let him compete for a roster spot. Not be guaranteed one.

Inside Linebacker

C.J. Mosley/Baltimore Ravens: Real late add to this list with the news he’s expected to hit the market. I think he’ll be too expensive for the team, even predicting they’ll be much more aggressive this year than year’s past, so I’m the odds of him ending up here are pretty low.

But you guys know what he brings. Consistency. Stability. Toughness, missing just one game after a nasty knee bruise suffered last season. And when he’s out there, the dude doesn’t come off the field. 90% snap count, excluding his Week 3 absence, in 2018. 98% of the time in 2017. Only missed three games in his career. Leader, communicator, guy your coaching staff can fully trust.

Jordan Hicks/Philadelphia Eagles: Here’s my cleanup hitter for you guys. Inside linebacker isn’t a great class. Anthony Barr wants too much and Kwon Alexander is coming off a torn ACL and probably will re-up with Tampa Bay.

Hicks makes the most sense. Above all, he’s a playmaker. When he’s in the lineup, the guy is a force. Since breaking into the league in 2015, he’s one of only three linebackers with 7+ interceptions and 10+ pass deflections in 40 or fewer starts. The other two? Deion Jones and Ryan Shazier.

This is a Steelers’ defense desperate for turnovers and he can provide it. I know health is a risk. He’s played all 16 games just once in four years and missed four games in 2018 with a calf injury. Medical concerns date back to his days at Texas. But I’m willing to take that risk, especially on a one or two year deal where he can prove his health and look long-term after.

Philly Voice, which I know is probably a cheesteak in front of a keyboard and not the end-all, projects Hicks to take a one year, $7 million deal. I’d do that.

Here’s the bottom line. When he’s available, he creates splash plays no one else on this roster has been able to provide. Couple clips of the moments he’s capable of making. In order.

1.  Zone drop, read the QB”s eyes, drive on the TE stick and break the throw up
2. Cover 2 turn, reads the TE sitting, drives on the ball and smacks it away
3. Zone drop, follow the QBs eyes, diving INT on a tipped ball

All plays we’ve seen Shazier make before. Hicks is capable of the same.

He’s an easy mover capable of flowing against zone schemes and turning the play back inside. And when he was active, the dude didn’t come off the field. From Weeks 1 through 10, he logged every single snap and was at 91% before getting hurt in Week 11.

Big fan of Hicks and would be thrilled if the Steelers nabbed him. Will the Eagles keep him before he hits the market? That’s a serious question.

Adarius Taylor/Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Here’s a guy you probably don’t know much about. Don’t worry. I didn’t either. But I decided to throw on a couple plays of his and then had to keep watching.

He’s versatile, playing strong side and middle linebacker for the Bucs, starting full-time when Alexander was lost for the year. While he didn’t call the plays, Lavonte David took over for that, he’s athletic and can cover.

Example of him playing the run. Unblocked, reads and tracks the path of the back, meets him in the hole and makes the tackle for just a one yard gain. He’s #53, the man in the middle.

Though a bit undersized, he ran a 4.59 40, did 32 reps on the bar, and turned in a 7.09 three cone at his Florida Atlantic Pro Day. A UDFA, Tampa plucked him off Carolina’s practice squad and he worked his way up the ladder.

Dude has done it all. Run down kicks and punts, play defense, heck, the he even played long snapper – with a broken finger on his snapping hand – when called upon.

Cornerback

Bradley Roby/Denver Broncos: Now we’re getting into the big money. Studied a lot of corners this year since it is arguably the position this team must replace on defense. Roby is my favorite. He’s not perfect, prone to giving up the deep ball, but an excellent athlete with a ton of versatility. Would start games as their right corner, but a little on the left side too, then kicked to the slot when Denver went sub.

That’ll allow this defense the flexibility it needs, especially for a guy like Joe Haden, who rarely moves inside. Helps your defense become “matchup proof,” where a team can move one of their receivers and you can’t adjust the way you want.

Roby is a twitchy corner who takes good angles and close on the football. Like his hit power, fearlessness, and ability to finish. Two clips to check out here.

1. Roby at right corner, top of the screen. Two verts against him. Great technique to play the “midpoint,” the middle of both vertical routes, bail to get eyes on the ball, and make a play on it along the sideline. That’s stuff we don’t see from this secondary.
2. Left cornerback vs Pittsburgh. Off coverage. Patient in his pedal, reads the out route (football IQ, reduced split often signals it), and breaks downhill for the ball, breaking it up.

Reads the quick game well in off coverage and doesn’t show any stiffness transitioning out of his pedal. Though his interception numbers aren’t too impressive, seven in five years, he makes big plays on the football.

Some of the issues? He can get boxed out by bigger receivers, having issue with Michael Crabtree and Brandon Marshall last year. Risk/reward corner who allowed a 40 yard TD to Tyreek Hill, 97 to JuJu Smith-Schuster, and 75 yarder to Rodney Anderson. Those aren’t positives but I’m being honest and transparent about his game here. You aren’t finding a perfect free agent anyway.

Pierre Desir/Indianapolis Colts: Desir was the first corner I watched. Really came out of nowhere this year, a breakout campaign with Indy. Bigger than Roby and predictably not as athletic or twitched up, and without the slot capability.

But I thought he was a smooth corner with the length and ball skills to make plays in coverage. Check out Desir’s recovery here. Playaction gets the defense to bite. He (#35) flips, rallies to the hip of the tight end, watches his eyes to time his jump and make the play.

Confident player and willing tackler even though he isn’t elite in that area. Competitive in the red zone and wins on jump balls.

Where he loses? Middle of the field, again that height and inherent bit of stiffness hurting him to defend slants and digs. But you’re not going to have much success throwing outside and vertical on him and that’s attractive.

Both these guys will probably cost in that $8-10 million range.

Bashaud Breeland/Green Bay Packers: One name you’re likely not to hear as often in free agency. That’ll hopefully make him a bit cheaper.

Breeland is a clear step down from Roby and Desir but he’s sort of a combination of the two. Versatility of Roby, played some slot though I don’t think he’s ideal there, but I like his frame and the option when you face big slot receivers or teams who will move their #1 inside, like the Bengals do with A.J. Green. And he has the length to play catch points and break up the football.

Here, covering Tyler Lockett in the slot, Breeland is able to stay in-phase and use his length to break the ball up at the catch point.

Dime/Safety

Tyrann Mathieu/Houston Texans: Let’s finish this group out with the safeties. I won’t go into too much detail here since Dave Bryan covered a Mathieu signing really well a few weeks ago. I echo much of what he’s saying. He’ll provide splash and be that versatile chess piece, though due to his small size, I don’t see him as an actual linebacker. In Pittsburgh, he could see time in the slot, matchup on tight ends split out, and in dime, move to safety with either Terrell Edmunds or Sean Davis moving down to the dime role.

Adrian Phillips/Los Angeles Chargers: Phillips is a guy who would truly be your dime backer. That became his role in LA, one he did really well. Hard hitter with good technique and plays the run with authority.

Compilation of some of his breakups here. You see him separating player from ball, or in others his ability to high point while getting depth. Two things this defense absolutely needs. Phillips is #31.

Interesting back story. Six career interceptions as a Texas Longhorn, UDFA by the Chargers, and was a true safety early in his career. Role gradually expanded into being their dime back, ahead of the curve of getting multiple DBs on the field to value speed and athleticism over everything else. He also was a core special teams player and named to the Pro Bowl for it, playing 78% of those total snaps.

Once he became the starter, he was darn near a three-down player. Played every snap in Week 15, 85% of them in Week 17.

Here’s my biggest question. What’s his market, what role is he looking for? Is he comfortable with being just a dime backer? Does he want to move to safety full-time? What price tag do each come at? And the Chargers are looking to sign him I’m sure, especially with Denzel Perryman’s contract expiring.

Putting those important issues aside, he’d be an awesome fit in this defense.

Antone Exum/San Francisco 49ers: Some less exciting options. Watched a little bit of him from his time in Minnesota and the last two years by the Bay. Mix of strong safety and single high. Physical, willing to sacrifice his body, shows good hit power. Played close to half the team’s special teams snaps, too. Only one career interception but has just ten starts under his belt.

Virginia kid, not from the 757 but Richmond, and went to Virginia Tech. Maybe that’ll catch Tomlin’s eye. We talk plenty about the dime role and that’s critical but the safety depth behind Davis and Edmunds is poor right now. That should be addressed.

Andrew Adams/Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Late add to my list. Read two days ago the Bucs weren’t going to tender him and he’ll hit the market. Made only four starts a year ago and 370 total defensive snaps but managed to pick off four passes, more than Mathieu and Landon Collins combined, and half what the Steelers’ defense did in 2018.

They weren’t all high quality but I like his concentration and hand/eye coordination. My favorite INT of his this year. Benefit of pressure and a poor throw but great job of locating the ball and making a pretty snag along the sideline.

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