It’s that time of year again. Free agency is creeping up in just a couple of weeks, so before we get there, we’ll get going over the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, position by position, making an assessment of what kind of shape they’re in, trying to figure out how they might, or should, attack the roster on that basis.
The Steelers are likely to be subject to more change than they are used to this year, with 19 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, including numerous starters. Two other important players have retired, so there is more shuffling of the deck than normal in Pittsburgh.
Total Positional Figure: 8
Joe Haden: Entering his fifth season with the Steelers, Haden is set to turn 32 soon and is on the final year of his deal. While he is still performing at a starter level, the team has to begin preparing for a decline.
Steven Nelson: Now in his third season since being signed as a free agent, Nelson has settled in as a sound starter, but now entering the final year of his contract, he should be a candidate for an extension later this year.
Mike Hilton: Heading into unrestricted free agency after four years as the Steelers’ starting nickel, Hilton has been one of the most versatile players in the league, who commands a presence as a run defender and blitzer in spite of his size.
Cameron Sutton: Like Hilton, Sutton is also an unrestricted free agent, who just so happens to have been stuck behind the former all of these past four years. That has stunted his market as a result, which could play into the Steelers’ favor in retaining him.
Justin Layne: A 2019 third-round pick, Layne has not shown the sort of development yet that you would hope, but he is still young and talented, and he came in raw, without much opportunity to work this past season due to the pandemic. You don’t teach his size/speed combination.
James Pierre: A rookie undrafted free agent last year, Pierre made the 53-man roster as a special teamer, but he did play ahead of Layne in the postseason game with Haden out when they played in their dime. They’d sure like for him to turn out to be a contributor on defense.
Trevor Williams: The Steelers signed Williams to their practice squad in the first week of January, so they haven’t had much experience with him. Coming into the league in 2016, he has a couple dozen starts to his name, but none over the past two seasons.
Stephen Denmark: Signed to a futures deal earlier this year, Denmark has a similar background to Layne as a physical but raw prospect, but he instead came from a small school, whereas Layne came out of MSU. Denmark has already bounced around the league a bit, but not uncommon for players in his circumstances.
One of the Steelers’ top priorities over the course of the next week has to be figuring out a way to keep at least one of Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton before they sign elsewhere in free agency. Beyond that, they could look to either Haden or Nelson, if not both, to rework their deals, either for cap relief or for a true extension, particularly in the case of the latter.
Overall, cornerback is never a position that you want off the table in terms of areas you want to address. If there is a cornerback in the draft that they like, depending on what else is available, they certainly shouldn’t hesitate, but they have been in much worse situations than they are now.