The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a host of talent this offseason, which came through a variety of means from retirement to salary cap casualties. Seemingly the only things they didn’t do were to trade or suspend any players. But you know what a player’s story when he leaves in free agency or he retires. It’s another story when you cut a guy.
That’s the story of Steven Nelson, the lone salary cap casualty (whom they didn’t re-sign, e.g. Vince Williams). The seventh-year cornerback spent the past two seasons with the Steelers after signing a three-year, $25.5 million contract in free agency in 2019.
He remains unsigned since the middle of March, though reports suggest that he has had contact with about half the teams in the league. While he did not immediately sign with a team, this is not atypical for a player in his situation, where there is no pressing timeline for signing. Really, any time before training camp is virtually the same for a player of his veteran status.
Yesterday, for a subscription-based ESPN Insider article, analyst Bill Barnwell took a stab at predicting where several key players who remain unsigned will end up before the season starts. He projects that Nelson will sign with the Arizona Cardinals, on a one-year, $4.5 million contract, writing:
One of the casualties created as Pittsburgh attempted to get under the salary cap, Nelson didn’t attract any trade interest on his prior deal before being released. Despite reports that 14 teams have inquired about the former Chiefs cornerback, none of those teams have actually gotten a deal over the finish line. Per Pro Football Reference, Nelson allowed a 97.0 passer rating last year, up more than 31 points from his 2019 mark with the Steelers.
Plenty of teams need cornerback help, but the Cardinals appear to be punting on it. Arizona did use a pair of midround picks at corner, but its current starters on the outside appear to be Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford. Butler is a viable reclamation project, but Alford hasn’t played since 2018 as a result of injuries. Nelson would give the Cardinals a replacement in their lineup for Patrick Peterson and prevent them from having to count on Alford to stay healthy.
Nelson played in and started 30 games for the Steelers, recording three interceptions with 17 passes defensed. He recorded 109 tackles, including two for loss, with two fumble recoveries. Per Pro Football Reference, he allowed 57 receptions on 98 targets last season for 732 yards and seven touchdowns, after allowing 37 of 74 the year before for 491 yards and zero touchdowns.
As for the Steelers, fifth-year corner Cameron Sutton will slide into the starting lineup. In conjunction with the free agency loss of Mike Hilton, it is still yet to be determined who the third cornerback is in the defense, and whether that player will be lining up inside or outside.