Heitritter: Steelers’ Free Agency Wishlist

As has been reported on the Terrible Podcast the last couple of weeks by Dave Bryan and Alex Kozora, the Pittsburgh Steelers are routinely known for bringing in players after rookie minicamp that end up making the 53-man roster to start the season. The team has already signed DB Arthur Maulet who figures to play as a slot corner and depth at safety, providing much-needed versatility to the defensive backfield. However, the team normally has two-to-three players signed during this time in the offseason up to training camp make the regular season roster come Week 1, so I have taken my shot at providing five sensible options at positions of need that the Steelers could have interest in signing that would have a chance to make an impact in 2021 and possibly beyond.

Morgan Moses, OT, Washington Football Team

Now this choice may be met with some backlash for several reasons. One being the Steelers already look to have their starting options in the likes of Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner for the 2021 campaign with the likes of Joe Haeg and Dan Moore Jr. serving as the backup options. Another reason may be that Pittsburgh couldn’t afford the likes of Moses on a one-year deal with the cap space they have left. However, after more of a deep dive into Moses’ game, I see this as a great opportunity for Pittsburgh to upgrade its “suspect” OL room into a more solidified unit in 2021 and possibly beyond.

Moses Makes sense for the Steelers for a variety of reasons. First, he is a Virginia-native which HC Mike Tomlin has a passion for adding to his roster, having been born in Richmond and played his high school ball in Chesterfield before attending the University of Virginia. Second, while he primarily has played RT in the NFL for the Washington Football Team, he started his final season at LT for the Cavaliers and stepped in to start several games in the 2020 campaign at the blindside due to injury, filling in well on the other side. If Moses is considered a RT-only guy in the pros, what does that make either Banner or Okorafor who too have primarily only played RT with their only experience coming back in college? While he may be more of a natural at RT, the tape he showed at LT last season leaves me thinking he can play either rather effectively if asked to do so.


Another key reason Moses to Pittsburgh would make sense is his ability to contribute as a plus-run blocker. Moses’ specialty comes in the ground game, using his size, strength, and power to displace defensive linemen and linebackers alike. As you can see on this example against Philadelphia last season, Moses displays a lot of power on his blocks, being able to clear out the likes of Pro-Bowl DT Fletcher Cox to give his runner a hole on the right side.


He does the same to backers at the second level, taking them clear out of the play and planting them into the ground on highlight blocks.


For being 6’6 and over 330lb, Moses is fairly agile for his size in open space. This example here shows his movement skills at his size as he pulls to the corner and picks up the defender, driving him back into the end zone. Moses definitely excels in power-based run schemes given his size and power but has also showcased the ability to function well on the move in zone concepts as well; something we expect to see more out of this offense under Matt Canada in 2021.


Now Pro Football Focus grades can be skewed from time to time, but Moses’ overall blocking rating in 2020 came out to an 80.6 while playing the tenth most snaps in the league for the position. For comparison’s sake, Okorafor’s grade came out to a 57.5 overall blocking grade. Now Okorafor may be the younger option and be able to take a step forward as the starting LT in 2021, but he is entering the last year of his rookie deal and young, quality OTs tend to get paid on the open market. Moses, who just turned 30 this year, may not be signed for the minimum, but could likely be inked to a two-year deal with a majority of the signing being pushed into 2022 when Pittsburgh has more cap space. This would allow Moses, who has started every game played since 2015, to help protect Ben Roethlisberger in his likely final season while also helping rookie Najee Harris in the ground game by binging that physical identity up front Pittsburgh is looking for under OL Coach Adrian Klemm. This would also allow Banner and Okorafor to battle it out for the other starting tackle job, not simply handing the starting job to either player that both have something to prove as starting options in the league. Overall, signing Moses would help the present and be a piece for 2022 should Pittsburgh decide to retain him, giving the team a solid starting option while improving the depth at OT for 2021.

Jesse James, TE, Detroit Lions

Pittsburgh has a history of going back to plyers that had previously been with the team that sign elsewhere but get cut for various reasons. In the case of former Steelers and lions TE Jesse James, the salary cap decrease and selection of T.J. Hockenson likely led to him getting his walking papers this spring. While James was never a super star in Pittsburgh, he really showed key signs of development over the years, improving as a capable blocker and became a good security blanket for Ben over the middle of the field as seen here on this RPO designed play where James initially blocks but detaches and catches the ball to pick up first down yardage.


While not the most explosive athlete, James had an innate ability to stretch the seam on occasion and come up with some big plays down field in the passing game as well like we see here against the Ravens.


Where James would really provide an impact on the offense as mentioned earlier would be as a blocker. Whether it be attached or spilt out as we see on this rep against the Raiders, James has the length, size, and willingness to stick his face in the fan and lock on the spring the runner or receiver in the screen game for big plays.


James also has showcased a good understanding of chipping defenders when going out on pass route to help his offensive line. Like he does here against Calais Campbell, James can use his size and strength to throw his body into defenders, knocking them off their spot and slowing them down just enough to give blockers and Ben more time in the passing game.


Given the retirement of Vance McDonald and the ineffectiveness of Eric Ebron as a blocker, adding James back into the fold would be a great way to both help the run game from the TE spot whilst also providing another body to contribute on special teams. Signing James would also allow for rookie TE Pat Freiermuth to be brought along at his own pace and not thrust into action too early, as TEs tend to have a big learning curve going from college to the pros. James can be had for the minimum veteran salary at this point, and would help complete the overall at the TE position this offseason from a weakness to a strength with three capable players on the depth chart.

Alex Okafor, EDGE, Kansas City Chiefs

With only Cassius March and sixth round rookie Quincey Roche as the depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, it would behoove the Steelers to take a look at the FA market and bring in another edge defender that can generate a pass rush and also hold up well in run defense. While there are reports that Pittsburgh was interested in the services of Ryan Kerrigan before he signed in Philadelphia and the likes of Melvin Ingram and Justin Houston remain on the market, the team likely doesn’t have the available cap to sign these players unless they result to a voidable year contract for a player they look at more as a rotational player than starter, given their hopes of Highsmith taking a step forward in Year Two.

Enter in Alex Okafor, more of a journeyman as an edge rusher who started out his career back in 2013 with the Arizona Cardinals and most recently played for the Saints and Chiefs as a key piece along their respective defensive fronts. To date, Okafor has started 60 of a possible 89 games in his NFL career at both DE and OLB, having experience playing on his feet and with his hand in the dirt. Okafor has battled staying on the field during his time in the league, most recently being put on the injured reserve list in 2020 with a hamstring injury but returned to play in November after missing about a month.

Having special teams experience early in his time with the Cardinals, Okafor has a well-rounded skillset as an edge defender and would be a cheap signing giving how his tenure in Kansas City ended. He has been consistently a three-to-five sack a season guy in the league having good hand usage to get around the edge as you can see here against Pittsburgh’s own Chuks Okorafor back in the preseason two years ago.


Or this example when he collapses the pocket and forces Tom Brady to step up to pass, making the ball come out early for the incompletion.


Okafor also plays with a lot of power as a rusher, being able to walk tackles back into the lap of the QB and finish the play for the sack.


While a modest sack producer, Okafor plays the run well given his strength, frame, and ability to move out in space to chase ball carriers down from behind. He does well at keeping outside contain and running defenders to the sideline.


Overall, Okafor would provide a more physical presence on the edge to stop the run than Marsh can provide and can be a viable power rusher when Highsmith or Watt need a breather. Dialing back his snaps from being a starter to 15-20 snaps a game could help him stay fresh as well, keeping him healthy and play a great role as a rotational pass rusher and allow Roche to come along slower than being forced into action before he is ready.

Gareon Conley, CB, Houston Texans

Pittsburgh has struggled in recent years selecting defensive backs in the NFL Draft, most notably cornerbacks. Over the past couple seasons, the team benefitted from signing Joe Haden who had been cut by the Cleveland Browns and Steven Nelson in free agency from the Kansas City Chiefs. They also were able to pick up Mike Hilton as an undrafted free agent who developed into quite the slot player for them. The only player Pittsburgh has drafted that has actually turned out recently is Cam Sutton who just recently signed a two-year deal this offseason to stay with the team after Hilton left to go to the Bengals in free agency and Sutton was released due to cap reasons.

Enter in Gareon Conley, a young player with the pedigree GM Kevin Colbert loves to see from potential free agents and trade targets. While I do think Conley was a little bit of a reach at #24 overall back in 2017 with the Oakland Raiders, I do recognize the intrigue with his skillset. He is a long corner with the size and athletic traits to play on the outside, possessing long arms, good quickness to match receivers, and the play speed and explosiveness to run downfield and challenge the catch point.


Only in his second season he matched up with Tyreek Hill and held him to one catch for 13 yards and Antonio Brown the following week, keeping him at five catches for 35 yards.


Conley vastly improved with more playing time and increased confidence for the Raiders but was traded to the Texans in 2019. Conley would be placed on injured reserve in 2020 due to complications to an offseason arthroscopic ankle procedure, essentially eliminating his 2020 campaign.

The injury would need to be vetted by team doctors for a signing to be made, but Conley is still only 25 years old and saw his play vastly improve his first couple seasons before the trade and ankle procedure. Likely being able to be signed for the league minimum, Conley could come in and push the likes of Justin Layne and James Pierre for the #3 spot if healthy and potentially allow Sutton to stay in the slot in nickel and dime packages instead of forcing Tre Norwood or Shakur Brown into action before they are ready. Conley doesn’t present much risk as a likely cheap signing and can be easily cut if not healthy or unable to come to form but presents upside as a toolsy player that has shown flashes to be a solid starting outside corner in the league.

Malik Hooker, FS, Indianapolis Colts

Malik Hooker is an interesting option on a variety of levels as a possible signing for Pittsburgh. The concern for Hooker is his injury history, most notably the torn Achilles he suffered in September of 2020, ending his season. Much also has been made about Hooker’s lack of willingness to tackle in run support. While this may have been the case coming out of college and initially to the start of his NFL career, I see Hooker as improving on this facet of his game every season in the league, he has a willingness to come up in run support from the deep safety position as we see here on this play, showing good range to get downhill and limit the back to a minimal gain.


Here is another example against Pittsburgh where Hooker makes a play near the LOS and fights off the block by #89 Vance McDonald and hits Jaylen Samuels in the backfield for a loss. Now both examples show hooker either diving at the ball carrier’s feet or shoulder tackling, which should be improved upon for better form tackling, but the statement that he is unwilling to tackle is slightly exaggerated.


The Steelers have shown interest in Hooker in the past, having Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin on-hand for his Pro-Day back in 2017 and reportedly met with them during the event. He is a former Buckeye which Pittsburgh has an affinity for and has the pedigree as a former first round selection and just turned 25, all key points Colbert considers when taking a chance on potential reclamation projects. The history of injuries is significant dating back to his college career, but Hooker is a natural ball hawk at the safety spot, picking off seven passes in his first three NFL seasons.


Hooker would likely be signed for the minimum on a one year, prove it contract where he can come in and provide depth at the free safety spot for Minkah Fitzpatrick and potentially allow Fitzpatrick to move around more in the defensive backfield, allowing him to move down closer to the LOS and disguise coverages more than last year with him mainly sitting at deep middle or in a two-deep look. Signing Hooker would also potentially push Edmunds who is also in a contract year to earn his playing time and provide a potential option to replace him going into 2022 should Edmunds walk in FA and Hooker manage to stay on the field. This is not to say Hooker is the Pro-Bowl talent he was projected to be coming out of Ohio State, but his signing would present a low risk, high reward option for Pittsburgh who needs to add a playmaking splash to its secondary.

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