The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: Cornerback is the Steelers’ biggest defensive need following the release of Steven Nelson.
Explanation: The Steelers have lost two of their top three cornerbacks from the past couple of seasons over the course of the past two weeks, with Mike Hilton leaving in free agency and Steven Nelson being released. Cameron Sutton projects as a starter, but the rest of the group is very inexperienced.
Cornerback is the only position on defense where the Steelers don’t clearly have a starter-capable player for a starting position, in which category I am not including nose tackle. With Bud Dupree, you have Alex Highsmith to take his place. Robert Spillane steps in for Vince Williams. Cameron Sutton replaces Steven Nelson.
But Sutton would have also replaced Mike Hilton—and may still do that in the nickel and dime. The nickel defender is a starting role that played about 700 snaps a year on most defenses. Justin Layne has played about 100 or so snaps, and not to raving reviews. James Pierre has a couple dozen, an extremely small sample size.
At least Highsmith and Spillane have started games At least Sutton has started. Meanwhile, Layne hasn’t shown significant growth in his two seasons, while Pierre is a former undrafted free agent. Will he be a Ramon Foster or a Brian Arnfeldt?
Robert Spillane is not a long-term answer at linebacker. There is reason to question if he is even an adequate bridge starter. The Steelers’ first defensive draft pick should be an inside linebacker, when you consider that the depth behind even Spillane consists of a sixth-round pick with back problems, a former safety, and a journeyman special-teamer.
And really, pass rusher isn’t so different from cornerback in the sense that you need three good ones. While you may not have three on the field at the same time much (though the Steelers did actually do that last year), the better pass rushes typically have a quality third rusher who can help keep the starters fresh. Right now, Pittsburgh doesn’t even have another edge rusher under contract beyond Highsmith and T.J. Watt.