With the Steelers’ 2023 offseason underway following a disappointing season that came up just short of reaching the playoffs, it’s time to begin reloading, through the free agency process, through the draft, and perhaps even through trade.
This is now a young team on the offensive side of the ball, though one getting older on defense. Both sides could stand to be supplemented robustly, including in the trenches—either one. Changes have been made to the coaching staff, even if not all of the desired ones, as the roster continues to renew with the weeks ticking by.
These sorts of uncertainties are what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
Topic Statement: The Steelers should have matched the offer the Detroit Lions were willing to give to cornerback Cameron Sutton (assuming they didn’t).
Explanation: Six-year veteran cornerback Cameron Sutton found himself near the top of the cornerback free agent market this offseason, hotly pursued in the early hours of the ‘tampering period’ before the official start of the new league year. He signed a three-year, $33 million contract with the Detroit Lions. The Steelers were reportedly not particularly close in their offer to retain him. Instead they signed Patrick Peterson, a much more decorated but also quite older player near the end of his career.
As much as Peterson may well prove to be a solid, stabilizing presence in the secondary, he’s not a long-term piece. He said himself that he planned to play 14 years in the NFL. He’s at 12 now, which puts him in line to retire at the end of his two-year deal with the Steelers.
Sutton isn’t necessarily a spring chicken anymore, but he only turned 28 less than a month ago. He could easily have another five or six years ahead of him. And he’s in his prime now whereas Peterson is already on the downside of his career, admitting that he can’t run one-on-one with guys all game anymore.
Eleven million dollars per season is unremarkable for a starting cornerback; Sutton’s contract doesn’t even crack the top 15. And the deal he signed with Detroit has a cap hit of under $3.3 million for 2023. The Steelers could have and should have been willing to match that deal.
The Steelers’ goal at cornerback this offseason seems to be the intention of shifting to the next generation. Signing Peterson might look counterintuitive to those ends, but it’s an indication that they’re ready to start grooming the next starters.
It’s very likely that cornerback will be their goal with their first-round draft pick, quite possibly keeping Joey Porter Jr. in-state after playing his college ball at Penn State. That would give them Peterson, Porter, Levi Wallace, Ahkello Witherspoon, and James Pierre for this season, and a two-year cushion to find their next starter to inherit the job from Peterson down the line.
Peterson is also an ideal player to serve as a mentor to younger cornerbacks. He said the Steelers didn’t specifically talk to him about that, but that it’s something he does naturally—he doesn’t need to be asked.
Signing Sutton just locks you into an average starter when they can do better than average. Peterson could realistically play better than Sutton will this year, and for less money. Even if they could have matched Detroit’s offer, the Steelers probably knew that Peterson was in the picture, and why they weren’t pressured into raising their price tag, as someone they had showed interest in previously.