A curious thing happens within some people when they learn that a player from their team will no longer be a part of the organization—for whatever reason, though the reason can intensify the effect. When this happens, certain fans will begin to rewrite their own feelings about that player and his performance.
It’s something of a defense mechanism that provides comfort by suggesting that your favorite team really isn’t losing much after all. We’ve certainly seen this in effect in relation to former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Steven Nelson, who was regarded following the 2019 season as one of the best free agent signings Kevin Colbert ever made.
But now he’s on the street after the team decided that they couldn’t weather his moveable cap hit of $8.25 million for 2021, given the precipitous drop in the salary cap. According to his interview on SiriusXM yesterday, the Steelers essentially approached him with the news that he would be gone; if you don’t find a trading partner, we’re going to have to let you go.
Ultimately, that’s what they had to do, thus getting nothing in return for his services, but it’s not a position that Nelson would have ever expected himself to be in. His performance has been more than adequate to justify his continued employment, in a vacuum, but there is the financial part of the equation to take into account.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling to me”, he said, that he found himself being released. “But you can’t cry over spilt milk. It just is what it is. It’s unfortunate. A lot of players are having to go through this situation, but I never thought it would be my situation”.
While he wasn’t the only part of the equation, the addition of Nelson as an unrestricted free agent in 2019 coincided with a substantial turnaround in the quality of play in the secondary. The trade acquisition for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was also obviously a huge component, but those two veterans combined really made a night-and-day difference in what the Steelers were able to do on the back end.
Fitzpatrick shouldn’t be going anywhere for hopefully another decade or so, but without Nelson, and Mike Hilton as well, Cameron Sutton is the next man up. Having been brought back as a free agent on a two-year, $9 million contract, he figures to enter the starting lineup, but it remains to be seen whether or not he will have to bounce back and forth between the outside and the slot.
That will depend on their other options. Justin Layne and James Pierre are the names that get mentioned the most as young players who could benefit through additional playing time by the moves of this offseason, and they are likely to be limited to the boundary.
Veteran Trevor Williams is also on the roster, and he is capable of playing inside and outside, so if he works his way up the depth chart, it’s possible that Sutton could stay outside full-time. Otherwise, the depth will be left up to whether or not they can pick up a cheap veteran, who whoever they can draft amidst all of their other positions of need.