Post-Draft Free Agents To Watch Out For: Defense

Now that the 2022 NFL Draft has concluded, The Pittsburgh Steelers will bring their rookie draft picks, UDFAs, and tryout players to rookie minicamp which will take place May 13-15. After that, the rest of the team will join the rookies signees and tryout players given a contract after rookie minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on May 24 for voluntary OTAs which run through June 9. After the OTA’s have concluded, mandatory minicamp will take place June 14-16.

Now, it has become custom for a player or two to be added to the roster via free agency after the draft has concluded to tie up any “loose ends” on the roster. Normally, this tends to occur after mandatory minicamp after the coaching staff and personnel staff have laid eyes on the players in attendance, likely deciding whether they feel comfortable with who that have at certain position groups or if they feel the need to add more depth or a potential starter to shore up positions of weakness on the roster.

We saw Pittsburgh already add S/CB Damontae Kazee immediately following the draft, and given the team’s history as well as HC Mike Tomlin’s comments post-draft concerning the lack off addressing outside linebacker in the 2022 NFL Draft, you can pretty confidently say that they aren’t done adding outside players to the current roster. Thus, I have taken the initiative to comb through the current free agents still out there on the open market and list several names that could interest the Pittsburgh Steelers at positions of need. In this post, I will be addressing the defensive side of the ball.

DL Akiem Hicks (age 32)

Now adding a defensive free agents over the age of 30 to this list for the Steelers normally would be a tough sell given the lack of signings of that particular age group during the Kevin Colbert era. However, with Colbert riding off into the sunset this offseason as well as Pittsburgh showing that they are more open to signing older defensive free agents by bringing in Melvin Ingram last season at age 32 and expressing interest in the likes of Ryan Kerrigan, Justin Houston, and Kareem Jackson the past two seasons, it is quite plausible that Pittsburgh could indeed show interest in a play like Akiem hicks who is still out there on the street.

The signing of Hicks would directly be related to the outcome of DE Stephon Tuitt and if the team perceives he can come back this season. Should Pittsburgh decide to move on from Tuitt, Hicks would be a sensible signing as a productive, experienced player that could help fill the void on the DL and provide the defense with yet another presence of leadership on the field and in the locker room. Should Pittsburgh designate Tuitt as a post-June 1 release according to OverTheCap, Pittsburgh would save roughly $9 million in cap space while incurring a $4.925 million dead cap penalty. The cap savings would be more than enough to ink Hicks to a one-year deal and likely allow Pittsburgh to sign another free agent as Pittsburgh shores up the defensive line with a talented run defender across from Cam Heyward.

DL Eddie Goldman (age 28)

Should Pittsburgh look to add a more traditional nose tackle into the fold to beef up the run defense, Hicks’ former teammate Eddie Goldman makes sense in several ways. First, Goldman is under that age 30 mark, just turning 28 this January. Second, he is coming off a salary cap crush the Bears pulled this offseason, meaning he could likely be had on a cheap 1-2 year contract as he looks to reestablish his value. Third, the Steelers showed interest in Goldman coming out of Florida State back in 2015 with GM Kevin Colbert on-site for his Pro Day. Given his relative youth, cost, and previous interest, Goldman could be a welcomed addition to the defensive line room in Pittsburgh that they may have interest in adding this offseason.

The Steelers signed current DL Tyson Alualu right before he turned 30-years-old back in 2017, and the case could be made that Goldman could be the eventual replacement for Alualu as he looks to come back from an ankle injury that cost him most of the 2021 season. Standing a shade under 6’4, 325lb, Goldman fits the mold as a traditional nose tackle in Pittsburgh’s base defense. He is a stout run defender that has hovered around 50% of total defensive snaps played during his career via Pro Football Reference. He may not bring the pass rush prowess that Alualu has at the nose tackle spot, but he has the capability to play some in sub packages and could fortify the trenches this offseason and potentially for years to come.

EDGE Takkarist McKinley (age 26)

A common theme with free agent signings of the Pittsburgh Steelers is their draw to bring in players with a pedigree and that they expressed interest in during the pre-draft process. EDGE Takk McKinley checks both those boxes as a former first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, going 26th overall to the Atlanta Falcons, four picks before the Steelers ended up drafting T.J. Watt. However, Pittsburgh made sure to do their due diligence on McKinley prior to the draft, bringing him in for a pre-draft visit and spoke with him at the NFL Combine. Luckily, Pittsburgh had McKinley come off the board before them and had Watt fall into their lap, but despite McKinley failing to stick as an impact first-round selection, he has been fairly productive when healthy in the league as a pass rusher, logging 19 sacks in 53 games played.

McKinley would likely be a late addition to the roster prior to training camp, as he suffered a torn Achilles back in December. However, given the rapid recovery of Cam Akers from the Achilles injury he suffered, perhaps there is hope that McKinley is ready to go close to the start of the 2022 season. He could come in and compete with Genard Avery for the OLB3 spot behind Watt and Highsmith, and likely be inked to a veteran-minimum contract as he looks to reestablish his value this season.

EDGE/LB Jamie Collins (age 32)

Again, going with an older defensive free agent due to potential need on the roster as well as by reading the tea leaves considering FA OLB Jamie Collins. Collins originally signed a three-year deal worth $30 million in 2020 with the Detroit Lions, but was cut in September of last season after the team failed to find a trade partner after decreasing his role on the defense for younger players in their rebuild attempt. He ended up catching on the the Patriots for a third time. While not the same playmaker he was in his earlier years in New England, Collins still remains a versatile chess piece that can play inside and outside and is capable of defending the run, rushing the passer, and playing in coverage for being a 6’3, 255lb linebacker.

The Steelers expressed interest in Collins coming out of Southern Mississippi in 2013, bring him in for a pre-draft visit. Collins also has had the benefit of being coached by Senior Defensive Assistant Brian Flores for several seasons in New England, meaning that a previous connection could be there as Flores is tasked with coaching the linebackers this season. Collins could be signed to a cost-effective deal and play a hybrid role for the Steelers, being able to play either inside or outside and provide depth, experience, and playmaking ability to a LB core that needs it with Devin Bush entering a prove-it contract year and little depth behind Watt and Highsmith at outside linebacker.

EDGE Tuzar Skipper (age 26)

I feel as if yinz would be calling for my head if I didn’t include fan favorite and former pre-season darling Tuzar Skipper on this list. As of May 2, Tuzar Skipper is officially available after the Tennessee Titans released him according to Steelers Depot’s very own Dave Bryan. Skipper originally signed as a UDFA back in 2019 and enjoyed a strong preseason that led to him making the Steelers’ 53-man roster. However, Skipper was waived during the first week of that season and ultimately claimed by the New York Giants. Pittsburgh signed Skipper of the Giants practice squad that November and inked him to a two-year contract after the season, but ended up waiving him again prior to the start of the 2020 regular season.

After bouncing around the Titans and Falcons the past two seasons, Skipper is available for the taking should Pittsburgh have any interest. Thus far, Skipper has registered just eight total tackles and half a sack in 84 total defensive snaps played. He has also logged another 71 snaps on special teams since entering the NFL. He likely would come into camp and compete with OLBs Derrek Tuszka and John Simon for the OLB4 spot on the roster. While not as high-profile as a signing as the other names above, Skipper has the size (6’3, 246lb) and the pass rush prowess to potentially stick as a situational pass rusher and special teamer if given a chance.

LB Dont’a Hightower (age 32)

For the longest time, I wanted the Steelers to pursue my former draft crush in LB Dont’a Hightower. I was slightly disappointed that they bypassed Hightower in the 2012 NFL Draft for OG David DeCastro (even though the pick ended up being a great call on value for Pittsburgh) and when news came out that the Steelers were trying to sign him in free agency, I was ecstatic. However, he ended up returning to New England and has been a steady presence there ever since. The two-time Pro Bowl and second team All-Pro selection has won three Super Bowls with the Patriots, leading a defense as the physical presence in the middle, racking up 569 tackles, 27 sacks, five forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, an INT, and two defensive TDs thus far in his NFL career.

I initially was going to list former Patriots LB Kyle Van Noy here, but he was just signed by the Los Angeles Chargers. The Steelers could stand to add a proven commodity to the LB room, and Hightower fits the bill as a ten-year vet and recognized as one of the leaders of the New England defense for the past decade. His best days may be behind him and he may struggle against the pass more than n the past, but Hightower still figures to be a stout run defender that can fill the BUCK role in Pittsburgh’s defense, being a mentor to the likes of Myles Jack and Devin Bush while also being an insurance policy for Push who is on the final year of his rookie deal and needs to step up his play. Given the Steelers’ previous interest in Hightower, the connection to Brian Flores, and the fact that he shouldn’t break the bank, Hightower could be that veteran FA add Pittsburgh makes to shore up the front seven.

CBs Trae Waynes (age 29) and Mackensie Alexander (age 28)

I hedged here and listed two possible outside CB additions the Steelers may make with Waynes and Alexander. While I personally don’t think Pittsburgh will add to the CB room this offseason having re-signed Ahkello Witherspoon and signed Levi Wallace at the start of free agency, I wouldn’t put it past them to possibly add another name into the fold for the right price. Alexander makes the most sense of the two as a former second-round pick coming out of Clemson in 2016 where they had Tomlin and Colbert on-hand for his Pro Day and met with him the night before. While pittsburgh may likley try and kick Cam Sutton inside to the slot with their recent FA signings, they may be tempted to keep him outside for depth purposes. Tre Norwood or Damontae Kazee could also play in the slot, but Alexander is a true slot corner that Pittsburgh had expressed interest in in the past and likely would be cheap addition to the secondary.

Waynes was a name often associated with the Steelers during the 2015 pre-draft process and ended up going #11 overall to the Minnesota Vikings. He has failed to live up to that draft selection thus far, struggling with injuries and inconsistent play, the former resulting in his release from the Cincinnati Bengals this off-season. The Steelers had a need at CB when Waynes came out in 2015 and were well-represented at his Pro Day with Coach Tomlin in attendance, so there could be some interest there assuming that his health checks out and he doesn’t break the bank. Again, this could be a little bit more of a stretch, but Pittsburgh has shown an affinity for former high-pedigree guys when it comes to draft compensation as well as player that that showed interest in during the pre-draft process. Alexander and Waynes check both of those boxes, so the addition of either wouldn’t necessarily come as a shock.

What are your thoughts on the names provided above? Do you think these upcoming free agents could be had at a discount to others at their respective positions and provide comparable play? What are some other names you think are flying under-the-radar that could be bargain signings on the defensive side of the ball? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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