It’s that time of year again. Free agency is creeping up in just a couple of weeks, so before we get there, we’ll get going over the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, position by position, making an assessment of what kind of shape they’re in, trying to figure out how they might, or should, attack the roster on that basis.
The Steelers are likely to be subject to more change than they are used to this year, with more than a dozen players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, including numerous starters. Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement looms large over all discussions for the foreseeable future.
Total Positional Figure: 9
Joe Haden: Soon to be 33 and hitting unrestricted free agency for the first time, Joe Haden is certainly in the home stretch of his career. He was injured for a stretch in 2021, but overall still played at an acceptable level. His market will determine whether or not Pittsburgh will look to bring him back.
Cameron Sutton: Re-signed to a two-year deal as a free agent in 2021, Sutton entered the starting lineup full-time last year, and I think we pretty much got out of him what we could have reasonably expected to see from him in 16 starts. He’s not going to keep up with the elite wide receivers and cornerbacks, but the guys who can cost you four times more.
Ahkello Witherspoon: Acquired via trade at the cost of a fifth-round pick shortly before the regular season began, Witherspoon sat on the bench for most of the year, behind James Pierre as the top backup. It took Pierre to struggle, and time for him to learn, before Witherspoon got his chance after Haden was injured. He played well once he got on the field, and they kept looking for ways to keep him on there. Now they’ll look for a way to keep him in free agency.
Arthur Maulet: Signed as a bit of an afterthought on the cheap after the draft, Maulet ended up playing most of the season as the Steelers’ primary slot defender. He did a solid job overall, and would be a welcome re-sign, though you certainly look to upgrade that role.
James Pierre: After building up hype around his potential, Pierre entered year two as the number three outside cornerback, and was even given some playing time in their early mix-and-match secondary. Due to injuries, he had multiple opportunities to start, with some very mixed results. He was beaten over the top one too many times, and ultimately benched defensively for the rest of the season, though he continued to be a core contributor on special teams.
Justin Layne: The third-year former third-round pick remained in stasis this year, not advancing his station within the team. He is an emergency-only defensive player who is a mostly average special teams contributor. Barring a significant development in 2022, he’ll be a one-and-done contract.
Tre Norwood: Drafted in the seventh round last year, Norwood was called a Swiss Army knife by Mike Tomlin, and he lived up to that billing. He played many roles in the secondary, and that included a good amount of work in the slot. He could have a bigger, more stable role in 2022, possibly as the primary slot defender.
Linden Stephens: 26-year-old veteran who was signed to the practice squad in late October. He’s played in 16 games in his career, including 13 in 2020, but mostly on special teams. He was retained on a Reserve/Future deal after the season ended.
Isaiah Johnson: A former fourth-round pick by the Raiders, playing 19 games for them in 2019-2020, he spent most of the season off of any roster. Didn’t make the cut for Las Vegas, then spent two weeks in October on Dallas’ practice squad. Pittsburgh signed him to theirs for a week in December, then he spent a few days in Arizona. Even though he bounced around and they parted with him, the Steelers circled back and adding him on a Reserve/Future deal on January 19.
Their first task is figuring out who among their own to keep. The Steelers are likely to keep one of Haden and Witherspoon, with the opportunity for them to keep both an option, depending upon the market. The fact that Witherspoon sat so long won’t help him, but he finished the season strong, so he could have some competitive offers. I would also bring back Maulet.
Gun to my head, I would say the Steelers’ starting cornerbacks this year will be Sutton and Witherspoon, with Norwood in the slot. But they could pursue an outside veteran free agent, especially a slot option, someone like Tavon Young, who could potentially be had below his market value due to his injury history.