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Malik Hooker’s A Cowboy – Where Do The Steelers Go From Here?

To much of the chagrin of yinzers across the nation, the hopeful anticipation of signing former Colts S Malik Hooker came to a crashing halt on Tuesday when he officially signed with the Dallas Cowboys. It was reported to Hooker was going to take a visit to Dallas with the intent to sign a deal, but several Steelers fans, myself included, were holding out hope that contract negotiations would fall through, and he would revert back to Pittsburgh to don the Black and Gold in 2021. Alas, this scenario wasn’t meant to be, as Hooker was spotted wearing a #28 Cowboys jersey at practice the other day in Oxnard, CA, putting to rest any inclination of him returning home as a Newcastle native to play in Pittsburgh.

I personally tried to call the signing of Hooker for months back in May when I came out with my FA Wishlist article as well as calling my shot on the Terrible Podcast over a month ago. The fit made too much sense considering with GM Kevin Colbert looks for in free agency, often gravitating toward guys with draft pedigree from a Power-5 school, that are under the age of 30, and they spent time with during the pre-draft process that can fill a need on their roster.

Hooker checks nearly every single one of those boxes, hailing from Ohio State which Pittsburgh has had a liking for former Buckeyes over the past several years, was drafted in the top half of the first round back in 2017, met with him at his Pro Day, is only 25 years old, and would fill the need of a backup safety behind Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds who can specifically play deep centerfield in the traditional free safety role, allowing Minkah to move around more to disguise coverages should they want to put multiple safeties on the field at once in sub package looks.

Granted, Hooker is coming off of a torn Achilles in 2020 and hasn’t been a model of health to start his NFL career, so this will be essentially a “prove-it” year for him in Dallas who has weak safety depth on the backend as he tries to recoup some value heading into 2022 FA.

As Dave Bryan and Alex Kozora have pointed out several times here on the site and on the podcast, it is expected that the team will likely try and add some depth to the safety position before the start of the 2021 regular season. Currently, the team has Miles Killebrew, Tre Norwood, and Donovan Stiner listed as the depth behind Fitzpatrick and Edmunds which isn’t the most ideal situation to be in if one were to go down.

Sure, the team also has Antoine Brooks Jr. and Arthur Maulet, but both of those guys appear to be battling it out for the starting gig at the nickel. Hence, it would be wise for Pittsburgh to add another body that has experience staring in this league and can come in and provide consistent play for several series or a couple games if necessary, much like they did when they decided to sign FA EDGE Melvin Ingram to shore up the OLB position.

As mentioned in a previous article I wrote highlighting the bigger need of backup safety or off-ball linebacker, there are still a couple names that make sense for Pittsburgh to try and acquire on the open market.

One which name is former Cowboys and Raiders S Jeff Heath. Jeff Heath signed a two-year deal with Las Vegas this past offseason worth $6 million with only the first year at 2,850,000 guaranteed according to Spotrac. At the conclusion of the 2020 season, the Raiders opted to release Heath to save $3,150,000 on the 2021 cap. Prior to this deal, Heath originally signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an UDFA in 2013 on a three-year, $1,487,000 deal, playing out his contract and then earning a four-year, $7,671,000 deal in 2016 through 2019 totaling $1,800,000 in guarantees.

While traditionally more of a strong safety, Heath brings a wealth of starting experience, playing in 119 games in eight professional seasons, starting 59 of them. He is a solid run defender and has made an impact in the turnover department as well, forcing five fumbles and snagging 11 INTs in his career, three of which came in 2019 with his lone season with Las Vegas. While Heath rolls up into the box often, he is more than comfortable moving around the defensive formation, playing as a split zone safety and even in single-high coverage at times manning the backend.

Given the fact he was released for being scheduled to make over $3 million in 2021, I don’t see Heath commanding any more than $2 million on the open market, making him a reasonable target for Pittsburgh due to his experience, versatility, and football IQ despite being past the age of 30.

Another name I mentioned in a previous article is former Carolina Panthers S Tre Boston. Boston was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft where he played for three seasons until he was unexpectedly waived in 2017 with one year left on his rookie deal. He signed a one-year, $900,000 contract with the Chargers, racking up 79 total tackles, eight PBUs and five INTs.

He then went on to sign a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Cardinals in 2018, recording 79 total tackles, nine PBUs, and three INT in 14 games played. Boston then linked back up with the panthers in 2019 on a one-year, 2.125-million-dollar pact, notching 68 total stops, 11 PBUs, and three INTs in 16 games played. This allowed Boston to finally cash in on a three-year extension worth $18 million with Carolina which included $8 million in guarantees. Sadly, after recording 95 total tackles, four PBUs, and only one INT in 2020, Boston was cut from the team to save cap space with the team taking on nearly $5.3 million in dead cap.

This is an interesting situation for Boston, as his stats along on the stat sheet warrant decent-sized contract compared to other notable safeties in the league. However, context does come into play, as many of the 15 INTs Boston has recorded in his NFL career were not of the greatest quality, more-so being a result of a poor decision of the QB throwing the ball where he shouldn’t and Boston being in the right place at the right time to make a play. However, when you plug in the tape, you see a guy that can move all over the formation, lining up at single-high safety, split zone safety, in the dime/nickel, in the box, and even on the edge of the LOS.

He is a willing tackler showing good pursuit of the football against the run and can generate a pass rush when asked to be sent on the blitz. He is capable of running with backs and tight ends in man coverage and is effective at making zone drops into the flats or in the middle of the field, using his instincts and awareness to take him to the ball to make plays in the passing game.

Personally, I see a very similar player to Hooker on film in terms of skill set, and while Boston is 29 years old, he honestly can be seen as more reliable than Hooker from a health, consistency, and tackling standpoint based on short film study of him. Boston could easily provide great depth at either safety spot and allow Pittsburgh to drop Minkah or Edmunds into the nickel more often, not having to rely on a guy like Brooks Jr. going into his second season to cover slot receivers since they would have an established veteran in Boston manning the deep middle with one of the other guys rotating down to get their best players on the field.

Given the fact that Boston had never cashed in above $2.125 million over one year prior to last season, I doubt he would command more than that in a cap-strapped year where he would need to sign somewhere to build his value towards hopefully a bigger pay day in 2022.

What are your thoughts on the safety position behind the established starters in 2021? Do you think that they will address the position with one of the names provided above, or do you think that they will go a different direction via another FA or potential cut? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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