Heading into free agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers were staring down a potential gaping hole in the secondary with the likes of Joe Haden, Ahkello Witherspoon, Arthur Maulet, and Terrell Edmunds hitting the open market.
Knowing they had some work to do, the Steelers and General Manager Kevin Colbert acted quickly, grabbing veteran free agent Levi Wallace early in the process on a two-year, $8 million deal, and then just one day later re-signing Witherspoon to an identical two-year, $8 million deal, shoring up the cornerback position rather quickly on the outside, while also re-signing Arthur Maulet to a relatively cheap two-year deal.
Though they didn’t spend a ton of money at cornerback in free agency, the Steelers have to be feeling great about their situation overall, getting Wallace and his 52 career starts into the fold and retaining a guy in Witherspoon who played lockdown football down the stretch last season.
Pro Football Focus’s Ben Linsey seems to agree, calling the Steelers’ under-the-radar signings of Wallace and Witherspoon a move in free agency that could have a big payoff.
“It appears as if Pittsburgh has found its starting outside cornerback duo for 2022 on inexpensive, two-year deals in free agency,” Linsey writes. “Wallace is a limited athlete who isn’t going to be able to stick with better athletes in man coverage, but he has proven to be a solid No. 2 starter on the outside with the Buffalo Bills. He has been quite difficult to replace in the starting lineup. Wallace has graded out in the 57th percentile of all qualifying cornerbacks in PFF coverage grade over the last three seasons as a starter in Buffalo.
“Witherspoon’s career has been more up and down, but he has put play on tape in stretches that matches high-end measurables,” Linsey added. “There’s a chance he could be a No. 1 option, and he looked like one once he got the opportunity to start for Pittsburgh down the stretch in 2021. Witherspoon allowed less than 50% of the passes into his coverage last season to be completed, for a passer rating allowed of 48.0.
“That play was worth seeing what he could do over the course of a full season. The addition of Wallace and re-signing of Witherspoon have the added benefit of moving Cameron Sutton back into the slot. Sutton has graded out in the 84th percentile of qualifying cornerbacks when lined up in the slot compared to the 25th percentile out wide since entering the league in 2017.”
Wallace certainly shores up the secondary and should be able to replace Joe Haden as the physical presence at cornerback who isn’t afraid to come downhill and stick his face into the fire against the run, while Witherspoon gives the Steelers a guy that can potentially take away the opponent’s top option.
Of course, much like Linsey mentions, the signing of the two veterans could also see Cameron Sutton kick back inside to slot cornerback in sub packages, which is an area he excelled at earlier in his career before moving outside full time in 2021. While they certainly aren’t flashy additions in the grand scheme of things, they’re typical Steelers moves. Ones that could have a major payoff in 2022.