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Heitritter: Steelers Updated Free Agency Wishlist

Back in the end of May, I posted an article highlighting several free agents the Pittsburgh Steelers should have had their eyes on heading into the offseason after OTAs and minicamp to help fill holes on the roster. Since then, the team has signed the likes of Trai Turner, Melvin Ingram, and acquired Joe Schobert via trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite the team’s interest in S Malik Hooker who was on my initial list and scheduled a visit with the Steelers, he eventually left town and signed a contract with the Dallas Cowboys. Outside of Hooker, I have to say the other names never materialized as actual options that could be likely signed.

While it may be more likely that GM Kevin Colbert will pluck some unfortunate cuts from other teams off the waiver wire once the rosters are trimmed to 53, I wanted to take the liberty of combing through the current free agent landscape again to see what potential names that are still out there could be logical fits for Pittsburgh given their current needs that have yet to be addressed. We can never be confident in which names will be released or who Colbert may try and trade for like he did with Schobert which frankly took a majority of Steelers fans by surprise. Thus, let’s look at the names currently available to be had on the open market and see how they may fit with the Steelers.

CB Gareon Conley

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. I mentioned Conley in my first free agents wish list, and the cornerback remains unsigned. This could be result of recovery from the injury, or teams wanting to see what they have in-house before going out to acquire a player off of the street. Likely being able to be signed for the league minimum, Conley could come in and provide depth at outside corner with James Pierre and Justin Layne, which could potentially allow Sutton to stay in the slot most of the time. He is a classic low-risk/high-reward signing that has flashed the skills to be a successful boundary CB in the league.

S Tre Boston

Another name I have mentioned in the past as a potential free agent target after Hooker was signed by the Cowboys 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 contract with the Chargers in 2017 and then went on to play for the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, racking up 15 PBUs and eight INTs in that two-year span. Boston then linked back up with the Panthers in 2019, having yet another good performance on the stat sheet with 11 PBUs and three INTs in the Carolina secondary. This led to Boston re-signing with the Panthers for a three-year pact in 2020 but was unfortunately released after the season to save cap space.

As mentioned in a previous article, Boston’s stats 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.

Boston 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. Just ask current Steelers QB Dwayne Haskins who was on the end of Boston’s lone INT in 2020. I quote the great Dave Bryan by saying that Boston appears to have a ball magnet in him, having the tendency to be in the right place at the right time to make plays.

 

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.

Buster Skrine

Buster Skrine has been around the block when it comes to his time in the NFL. He originally came into the league as a fifth-round draft pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2011, playing alongside current Steelers CB Joe Haden in the slot as the nickel defender while also getting exposure on the outside for the Browns, recording 47 PBUs and six INTs in his first four seasons. He then inked a four-year contract with the New York Jets in 2015, manning the nickel position for the team. Skrine then went on to sign a contract with the Chicago Bears in 2019 but missed time due to injury and lapses in play in 2020 caused him to be a cap casualty this offseason as the Bears gave him his walking papers.

Skrine is currently 32 years old and is coming off of a season where he surrendered 51 receptions on 65 targets in the slot for Chicago. Many would consider Skrine past his prime, which could be a fair statement. However, he is known for being a physical presence on the inside, having three forced fumbles to his credit during his short time in Chicago and is more the capable as a defender in run support. For example, take a look at this play Skrine makes looping around the LOS on a critical 4th-and-1 situation. He displays great instincts, breaking in pursuit right as the receiver goes in motion for the hand-off, taking a great angle to the ball to stick him in the backfield for a big stop.

 

Pittsburgh is still currently looking for an answer at the nickel position, and wither Arthur Maulet sidelined due to injury and Antoine Brooks Jr. missing a large portion of training camp with injury concerns of his own, Cam Sutton seems to be the guy that is most likely suited for that role at this time. While this could feasibly work with James Pierre going outside, Pittsburgh could invest a veteran-minimum contract in a proven player that can man the nickel and provide a physical presence inside to a degree like Mike Hilton did for the team until Brooks is ready to step into that role. Also pairing former teammates in Haden and Skrine together with the strength of the front seven in front of them could be an interesting pairing for the 2021 season.

Ben Garland

Dave Bryan has often mentioned on the Terrible Podcast that Pittsburgh should be keeping their eyes peeled for a veteran center as training camp wraps up for insurance to rookie C Kendrick Green this season. Well, the team need to look no further than the current list of free agents available with a guy like Ben Garland still out there waiting to be signed. Garland most recently played for the San Francisco 49ers the last two seasons, along with the Atlanta Falcons from 2016-2018 and the Denver Broncos before that. He has played in 68 games in his seven-year NFL career, starting 15 of those games at both center and guard for the Falcons and 49ers.

Not many may complain about Garland’s ripe old age, being that he is already 33-years-old. However, he entered the league at the age at 24 and actually didn’t record his first NFL start until age 29. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that Garland is just a body and can’t play, though. Much like Green for the Steelers, Garland is a compact, athletic offensive lineman who does his best work out on the move on zone concepts in the running game. He knows how to get a body on a man in the open field and has the athleticism to get out in space as we see on this screen pass just from last season, shedding the block of the defensive lineman and climbing to the second level to pick off #54 Blake Martinez of the New York Giants to spring his back into the end zone for the score.

 

Garland hasn’t been signed likely due to his age and overall limited starting experience. However, given his position versatility and the similarities he has in size and skillset to Kendrick Green, Garland would be a savvy veteran signing by Colbert to provide depth along the offensive line as well as bring a mentor in to the locker room to teach Green the tricks of the trade and how to play as a smaller-sized center in the NFL. Much Like Melvin Ingram has been a positive influence on a young player like Alex Highsmith, Garland could serve a similar role for Green whilst still providing a capable backup option that would fit well in OC Matt Canada’s offensive system.

Lamont Gaillard

While Dave has been begging for a veteran center to be brought in before the start of the regular season, Alex Kozora has mentioned offensive guard as potentially a bigger need to round out depth along the offensive line. While Garland has experience playing both center and guard, a younger option that could be considered is Lamont Gaillard. Gaillard was a three-year starter at guard and center at the University of Georgia and was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He made the 53-man roster in his first season but didn’t start a game.

Gaillard started three games of 13 games played in 2020 after the opening starter went down due to injury. He ended up missing three games at the end of the season due to the birth of his daughter, causing him to have to take a leave of absence from the team due to COVID-19 protocols. In a surprising move, the Cardinals waived Gaillard in July of 2021 where he was claimed by the Bengals off of waivers. He spent a month with the team and appeared in the team’s first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being waive a few days ago.

Gaillard sticks out as an intriguing add for Pittsburgh due to his experience and position versatility. He has experience playing both guard and center and is only 25 years old. He would be a low-cost signing that could be feasibly an upgrade over the likes of J.C. Hassenauer at the backup center position or Rashaad Coward at the guard position. Despite being only 6’3, 305lb, Gaillard plays with a fair amount of anchor and strength for his size flashing good technique in pass protection like seen below from the LG spot as well as the mentality to get after it in the running game.

 

What are your thoughts on the names brought up as potential additions to the Steelers roster in 2021? Do you think it is a foregone conclusion that the team will add someone via final roster cutdowns or by another trade before the start of the season, or do you think that an outside free agent could be in the cards? Which of the names listed above would you most like to see brought into Pittsburgh? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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