Now that the 2022 NFL Draft has come and gone, and the window for compensatory picks based off of free agent signings has closed, NFL teams are starting to become more active on the free agent market once again, signing valuable veterans to team-friendly deals well after the initial wave of free agency passed.
One of those teams that could get rather active in the coming weeks in the free agency market is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who still have some holes on the depth chart at outside linebacker and at cornerback. After signing veteran safety Damontae Kazee to a one-year deal, the Steelers plugged their hole at safety behind Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds.
Now, with no compensatory pick outcomes tied to free agents, the Steelers could be in the market for another inside linebacker, cornerback, or tight end, according to Bleacher Report’s Kristopher Knox, who highlighted three veterans the Steelers “should pursue” following the NFL Draft.
Those players? Tight end Jared Cook, inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens, and a very familiar face in cornerback Joe Haden.
Haden, of course, spent the last five seasons holding down the No. 1 cornerback role in Pittsburgh under defensive coordinator Keith Butler and head coach Mike Tomlin. Haden was a significant veteran leader for the black and gold, especially from a communication standpoint, but injuries and a decline in play caused the Steelers to let the veteran hit the open market this offseason, signing veteran cornerback Levi Wallace away from the Buffalo Bills to seemingly replace him.
Of course, coming out of the NFL Draft the Steelers still have some depth concerns at cornerback behind perceived No. 1 corner Ahkello Witherspoon, Wallace, and Cameron Sutton, as the only other corners on the roster include Arthur Maulet, James Pierre, Justin Layne, and Isaiah Johnson, while Tre Norwood and Kazee have some positional versatility overall.
That’s where Haden comes in for Knox.
HOW DID JOE HADEN COME DOWN WITH THIS!?!? pic.twitter.com/SQbfijvyN5
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 16, 2018
“Had the Steelers picked up a cornerback over draft weekend, closing the book on Haden would make some sense,” Knox writes. “He’s one of the best options out there, but he probably won’t be the cheapest. Now, though, re-signing Haden is the logical step. The trick will be getting Haden to agree to a relatively team-friendly price. That could take some finagling and perhaps a very incentive-laden offer. However, Pittsburgh knows Haden can be a valuable commodity in the AFC North, and that’s reason enough to get a deal done.”
While it certainly makes sense on paper for the Steelers to pursue a reunion with Haden as a depth option, it makes very little sense for Haden, who at 33 years old would want a starting job somewhere in the league, and for starter money, rather than taking a cheap, team-friendly deal to likely sit on the bench and serve as a mentor. That’s not in Haden’s DNA, and based on his latest video on Instagram, he’s moving on the from the Steelers.
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) May 9, 2022
Aside from Haden, Knox pitches the pursuit of Hitchens, even though the Steelers drafted a BUCK inside linebacker in Mark Robinson and signed Myles Jack in free agency. Now, the depth chart looks rather crowded with the likes of Jack, Robinson, Devin Bush, Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, Ulysses Gilbert III, Buddy Johnson, and Tegray Scales.
“Hitchens can be an asset against the run and has topped 75 tackles in each of his past six seasons. Last season with the Kansas City Chiefs, he tallied 80 tackles, 41 solo stops and four tackles for loss while only being credited with four missed tackles,” Knox writes. “The 29-year-old can also help boost Pittsburgh’s second-level pass defense. Last season he allowed an opposing passer rating of only 83.4. That’s moderately better than Joe Schobert, who allowed a rating of 90.0 in coverage.”
Anthony Hitchens looked as a good as he ever has in KC on Thursday
1. Zone Blocking
2. Reads it instantly
3. Scrapes to Edge while getting downhill (zone steps)
He looked good reading his keys, taking proper steps/alignment
This Hitchens is worth his contract pic.twitter.com/FC0BxH815s
— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 22, 2019
Hitchens isn’t much of an upgrade at all at this point in his career over a guy like Robert Spillane, or even Myles Jack, so pursuing Hitchens — a guy they’ve shown interest in before — doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. He’d be joining the Steelers in a reserve role and would need to play special teams, which is just something he doesn’t do, having averaged around 50 snaps per season on special teams dating back to his final season with the Dallas Cowboys in 2017.
As for Cook, it makes some sense to consider the veteran tight end as a solid No. 2 to pair with Pat Freiermuth on paper, but the Steelers certainly like their tight end pairing of Freiermuth and Zach Gentry overall, and adding a veteran who is more of a pass-catching weapon than a blocker wouldn’t mix very well. Add in the fact that he’s 35 and on the tail end of his career, the Steelers are very likely to avoid Cook, even if he can still play at a strong level as a No. 2 tight end in a pass catching role overall.
JARED COOK GOT 🆙 pic.twitter.com/Nt80J3BEDs
— PFF (@PFF) November 29, 2021
The Steelers will likely remain active on the free agent market in the run-up to training camp in Latrobe later this summer. But don’t expect a flashy signing. It’s more likely the Steelers add a third outside linebacker to compete with Genard Avery and Derrek Tuzska, as well as a backup running back to compete with Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland.