The Pittsburgh Steelers try to use free agency, when they can afford to, to fill in at positions that they identify as needs, which gives them greater flexibility to target players based more on talent than at positional weaknesses. Based on the first two days of the NFL Draft, however, it appears they have had three positions this offseason they really wanted to target.
The Steelers signed cornerback Steven Nelson to a three-year, $25.5 million deal, the largest contract they have ever agreed to with an outside free agent during the free agency period. They then added inside linebacker Mark Barron on a two-year, $6 million contract, and wide receiver Donte Moncrief on a two-year deal worth $9 million.
Those also happen to be the three positions that they addressed in the first three rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft, starting with a big trade-up in the first round for Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush. With their two third-round picks last night, they addressed the wide receiver and cornerback positions with Diontae Johnson out of Toledo and Michigan State’s Justin Layne.
Inside linebacker has been an area of weakness ever since Ryan Shazier was injured, of course, late in the 2017 season, and the Steelers made it very clear this offseason that they believed they failed to appropriately address the position in 2018 in only signing Jon Bostic in free agency and making no draft picks.
Now they have Barron and Bush to go along with Vince Williams, and at least for now Bostic still in the picture as well. Barron may start at the beginning of the year, but Bush, a player with NFL pedigree who was literally coached by his NFL-veteran father, could have a fast trajectory to a starting spot as well.
Cornerback has been a positional weakness for years, and if they have not supplemented the group in free agency, it would be a borderline disaster. Joe Haden was signed to a three-year, $27 million deal in August of 2017, and Nelson now joins him two offseasons later.
Now Layne joins that group, where they will be looking to add competition, with Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton currently the top two players behind the projected starters. Teryl Austin said that they initially view Layne as an outside player, so if he plays quickly, Nelson could sign into the slot.
The need for wide receiver emerged suddenly and dramatically after they were forced to find a trading partner for Antonio Brown as he ramped up his insubordinate behavior in search of a new contract and guaranteed money.
Paired with second-year James Washington, the additions of Moncrief and Johnson give the Steelers a number of options, all of which figure to be used at certain intervals, as they look to keep a top-five scoring offense two seasons running humming without their most prolific scorer and most dynamic receiving threat.