The Pittsburgh Steelers had never before agreed to a contract with a player during the legal tampering window in free agency before with an outside player, but they did so this offseason with former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson. Nelson, a former third-round pick entering his fifth season, has been a starter for most of his career, but largely moved inside before last season.
When he came to Pittsburgh to conduct his introductory press conference in front of the media, he was asked if he saw himself as an outside cornerback, and he said that the did and he expected to be there when he lines up with the Steelers.
During the annual league meeting last week, however, Head Coach Mike Tomlin couldn’t say enough about the versatility that Nelson brings to the defense in terms of being capable of playing both on the boundaries and in the slot.
“We believe we need that versatility, that inside-outside capability. We’re excited about the addition of him”, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted him as saying when he spoke with select members of the local media on a variety of topics in his first public remarks since his season-ending press conference in early January.
“We liked his versatility, which was first displayed to us at the Senior Bowl”, he noted, indicating how long they had been monitoring his development. He was one of their pre-draft visitors to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex the year he came out. “That’s the first time we saw him play inside. He only played outside at Oregon State. That was intriguing to us”.
Of course, the reality is that the Steelers are in the market for an outside cornerback right now, not a slot cornerback. Their long-term starter was supposed to be Artie Burns, their 2016 first-round draft pick, but they appear to be on the verge of giving up on him.
Last year’s primary starter was Coty Sensabaugh, who began rotating with Burns in Week Three and took over the right outside position for the rest of the year beginning in Week Eight, which came after the team’s bye week. Burns only played due to injury or late in games after that in limited snaps.
Meanwhile, the Steelers have at least two options in the slot that they are comfortable with in Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton. Hilton is not suited to playing on the outside, but Sutton could, so if Hilton is in the game, Nelson would obviously be on the outside. Should Sutton play, it’s more conceivable that the veteran free agent acquisition could kick inside.
Nelson’s three-year, $25.5 million contract is the second-largest both in per-year average and total money that the Steelers have ever handed to an outside free agent, the most being their other cornerback. Joe Haden received a three-year, $27 million contract in August of 2017, and is likely to be extended this summer.