Steelers 2023 Free Agency Primer: Unrestricted Free Agents – Defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers offseason is now officially underway as of this past Sunday afternoon and between now and the start of the 2023 league year in March the team will need to make several decisions regarding the players scheduled to become free agents. In this post, we’ll look at the eleven Steelers’ defensive players currently scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at the start of the new league year.

Unrestricted free agent (UFA): Any player with four or more accrued seasons and an expired contract; free to negotiate and sign with any team.

CB Cameron Sutton – Sutton might very well be the Steelers’ highest profile and highest priority unrestricted free agent this offseason. His contract will void in early February and that will result in him being scheduled to become unrestricted in March. While he did miss one game due to injury in 2022, Sutton still managed to log 931 total defensive snaps in addition to 61 more on special teams. He ended the season with 43 total tackles of which one resulted in lost yardage. Additionally, Sutton was credited with three interceptions and 15 passes defensed in 2022. He played both outside and inside during the season. He’s probably the smartest player the Steelers had on the defensive side of the football. The Steelers really can’t afford to let Sutton get away in free agency. That said, Sutton might have a fairly robust market price this offseason due to supply and demand at the cornerback position in free agency. One could easily argue that he will be in the top three at his position if allowed to hit free agency in March. Personally, I think we’ll see Sutton re-signed this offseason and possibly before the start of the new league year as well. If that happens, his new money average might come in higher than most think it should.

DT Larry Ogunjobi – The Steelers signed Ogunjobi to a one-year, $8 million contract last offseason and as a whole, he seemed to fit in well on the defensive line. Ogunjobi did deal with a toe injury during the latter part of the season and that may have played a part in his overall lack of production versus what was probably expected. In total, Ogunjobi played 636 defensive snaps in 2022 and 55 more on special teams. He ended the season with 48 total tackles with seven resulting in lost yardage. He was credited with 1.5 sacks in 2022 and 11 quarterback hits. He missed one game in the middle of the season due to a knee injury. Ogunjobi has switched teams in each of the last three offseasons and with him set to turn 29 this offseason, the Steelers should be careful if they are looking to retain him with a multiyear deal. It feels like Ogunjobi is open to continuing to be a free agent mercenary at this point so there’s a good chance he’s on his fourth NFL team come the end of April. While Ogunjobi did have a fair share of exciting plays in 2022, it feels like his best days are behind him at this point when it comes to complete games. If the Steelers can get him back on a deal cheaper than $8 million per season, it wouldn’t be the worst re-signing ever. I have a feeling that won’t happen, however.

S Terrell Edmunds – The Steelers have been very patient with Edmunds since drafting him in the first round and while he’ll never be confused with being a Pro Bowler, he has progressed in baby steps every season since he was drafted. Even so, Edmunds is still not delivering plays that really show up in the box score. That’s been one of the biggest knocks on him to date. In 2022, Edmunds played in 15 games on his way to registering 70 total tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, two quarterback hits, five passes defensed and a fumble recovery. He played 886 defensive snaps in 2022 in addition to 187 more on special teams. Edmunds tested unrestricted free agency last offseason and ultimately returned to the Steelers on a cheap one-year deal. We might very well see a repeat of that this offseason. The cheaper the better if they do re-sign Edmunds because that would not prevent the Steelers from drafting another safety that could possibly man the strong safety spot sooner rather than later. I think there’s a decent chance he’s back for one more season.

ILB Devin Bush – The Steelers have suffered through Bush for the last few seasons and 2022 might have been his last one in Pittsburgh. While Bush did play a little bit better in 2022 than he did in 2021, it’s time for the Steelers to go a different direction away from their former first-round draft pick out of Michigan. In total, Bush logged 659 defensive snaps in 2022 to go along with 68 more on special teams. He was credited with 81 total tackles in 2022 of which only two resulted in lost yardage. He had two passes defensed, two quarterback hits in 17 games played. In coverage, Bush was targeted 38 times and he allowed 28 completions for 318 yards and a touchdown. Bush only played 10 total defensive snaps in the Steelers final two games against AFC North rivals. That limited playing time speaks volumes. Bush is not much of a special teams player so it is probably time to let him fly away to another team that thinks they can fix him and get him to play up to his draft status. I will be shocked if the Steelers re-sign Bush.

ILB Robert Spillane – The Steelers leaned on Spillane quite a bit in 2022 and quite honestly, he might have been their most consistently stable player inside throughout the season. Spillane was on the field quite a bit in 2022 as he played 588 total defensive snaps and 134 more on special teams. That’s the most snaps he’s ever played in a season. He ended the 2022 season with 77 total tackles with four resulting in lost yardage. He was also credited with a sack, two quarterback hits and four passes defensed. On special teams, he delivered two more total tackles. In coverage, Spillane was targeted 42 times and he allowed 36 completions for 359 yards and a touchdown. Two of the Steelers five inside linebackers that they carried on their 2022 roster could be gone this offseason in Bush and Marcus Allen, who is profiled later in this post. There’s also a tiny chance that another one, veteran Myles Jack, could be jettisoned as well. On the surface, it feels like the Steelers have a lot of comfort in Spillane and thus it won’t be shocking if he’s re-signed to a modest one or two-year deal this offseason. He has a lot of warts, but at least he can play downhill and thump against the run.

S Damontae Kazee – It’s too bad that the Steelers didn’t have Kazee right out of the chute for the 2022 season as he was fantastic during the preseason. Kazee started the 2022 season on the Reserve/Injured list thanks to a forearm injury and he didn’t make his debut until Week 10, after the team’s bye. In half a season, Kazee registered 20 total tackles, two interceptions, and two passes defensed. He played 273 defensive snaps and 58 special teams snaps. In coverage, he was targeted 11 times and allowed seven completions for 79 yards. Kazee seemed like a natural fit in the Steelers’ defense in 2022 and especially when he was part of the three safety packages used. The Steelers defense was very good against the pass in the second half of the season with the return to the field of Kazee and outside linebacker T.J. Watt. That’s probably not just a coincidence. Kazee was signed to a minimum salary last offseason and he’s likely to command a little more than that this offseason. The Steelers should do their best to meet his market price as long as it is within reason. I have a feeling they just might do that. He was a nice fit in the puzzle in 2022.

DE Chris Wormley – Unfortunately for Wormley he sustained an ACL injury in Week 14 of the regular season and that landed him on the Reserve/Injured list the following week. He has since had successful knee surgery but still might not be ready for action again until well after NFL training camps get underway in the summer. Prior to him sustaining his injury, Wormley registered 29 total tackles in 338 defensive snaps played. He was credited with half a sack, three tackles for loss, one quarterback hit and a forced fumble in the 13 games he played in. The Steelers more than likely will want to re-sign Wormley at some point during the offseason. Obviously, how is rehab comes along will play a big part in such a decision. His market value should be extremely low with him being a backup player coming off a knee injury. When the smoke clears before training camp gets underway, I think there’s a good chance we’ll see Wormley back under contract and getting ready to fight for a roster spot.

DT Tyson Alualu – 2022 was the 13th season in the NFL for Alualu and one must wonder if it was his last. In total, Alualu registered just 13 tackles in 2022 in 291 defensive snaps played. He was credited with two quarterback hits, one pass defensed and a half a sack in 17 games played. He also logged 32 snaps on special teams, all of which were uneventful. Alualu will turn 36 years of age in May and he’s just not the player that he was back in 2020. In short, I think that we might see Alualu retire in the coming weeks, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t. He gave the Steelers all he had these last six seasons.

OLB Malik Reed – The Steelers traded for Reed just ahead of the 2022 regular season getting underway and he wound up being a huge disappointment. Reed played 396 defensive snaps in 2022 in addition to 58 more snaps on special teams. He played in 14 games and was a healthy scratch for three others, which isn’t a great sign for him coming out of the 2022 season. Statistically, Reed registered 25 total tackles in 2022. He was credited with one sack, one tackle for loss, four quarterback hits and two passes defensed. He failed to register any tackles on special teams. How the Steelers handled Reed in the team’s final two games makes it clear that the they do not think much of him as a defensive player and especially against the run. Should they decide they want to re-sign him this offseason, it would only be for the minimum with no guarantee that he ultimately makes the 53-man roster out of training camp. Honestly, they should not worry with him at all.

ILB Marcus Allen – 2022 was the fifth season for Allen in Pittsburgh and there’s a good chance it might have been his last one. Allen, who did not play a single defensive snap in 2022, did play extensively on special teams as he was a core player once again. He logged 230 total special teams snaps in 2022 on his way to registering 12 total tackles of which eight were with him being the primary. Allen was once again the upback on the punt team and that’s a very important and underrated position. He was penalized twice in 2022 with one of those being a silly unsportsmanlike conduct infraction in Week 15. That penalty could have cost the Steelers that road game. The following week, Allen suffered a biceps injury and was lost for the final two games. He ended the 2022 regular season on the Reserve/Injured list, and he has since undergone surgery. Allen’s injury rehab will likely take a little while. On top of that, he’s not likely to draw much interest as an unrestricted free agent for more than the minimum. He’s a special teams-only player. It’s time for the Steelers to move on from Allen if they can bring it upon themselves to do so.

S Karl Joseph – An ankle injury sustained by Joseph in the Steelers’ first preseason game of 2022 ultimately ended the season for the former first round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders. Joseph went on to spend the entire 2022 season on the team’s Reserve/Injured list and on a split salary cost of $480,000. While Joseph is still only 29 years of age, it now feels like his NFL career might be over with. He’s sure to not get any attention during the first several weeks of free agency outside of possibly a cordial offer for the minimum as part of another veteran benefit contract. It’s doubtful that the Steelers will look to re-sign Joseph even at the minimum. If they do, it’s hard to imagine him ultimately making the 2023 53-man roster out of training camp. They should just let him ride off into the sunset at this point.

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