Earlier this month, NFL.com published a list of the most ‘underappreciated’ player on each team, and their selection for the Pittsburgh Steelers was Stephon Tuitt, the veteran defensive end who was going on a tear during the first third of the 2019 season before he went down with an injury that landed him on injured reserve.
It was a very good and obvious pick for an underappreciated player. Tuitt has arguably the same talent level as Cameron Heyward, and actually is just now entering the same phase of his career that Heyward was when his production spiked over the past three years. 2020 figures to be very fruitful for him if he can stay healthy.
But he wasn’t the only obvious candidate for that list, and Pro Football Focus just took a similar approach, looking to identify the most underrated player on each team. I can’t say I like their choice any less than Tuitt, because they went with cornerback Steven Nelson. Ben Linsey writes:
The midseason trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick draws the vast majority of headlines for the improvement we saw from Pittsburgh’s defense in 2019. Denying the impact of Fitzpatrick’s addition is foolish, but it wasn’t the only big addition to the secondary that played a massive role. By the numbers, Nelson was one of the league’s best cornerbacks last season. Playing opposite Joe Haden, his 80.5 overall grade ranked sixth among all cornerbacks in 2019, and he allowed just 33 receptions on over 500 coverage snaps all year. Another season with numbers like that and more people are going to start taking notice.
Really, the only thing keeping more people from paying attention was the fact that he wasn’t taking the ball away. He only finished the year with one interception after having four the year prior with the Kansas City Chiefs, and even that interception was a floater off of a deflected pass.
In his defense, he also didn’t have many shots at an interception. I’m not sure if he had any ‘dropped’ interceptions’, the way Joe Haden had a small handful in 2018. Haden picked up five interceptions last season, however. Perhaps Nelson will put up the numbers in 2020. Or both.
With Haden and Nelson at cornerback, Mike Hilton in the slot, and the back end solidified with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, the Steelers have the most talented secondary they’ve had in a while. Can they maintain the same level of play next season, though? That is the big question. If the front seven keeps the pressure on the quarterback, I like their chances of remaining near the top of the league.