The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost 40 percent of their starting secondary from last year during the past few weeks. Cornerback Cameron Sutton agreed to join the Detroit Lions on the first day of free agency on a reported three-year, $33 million contract. More recently five-year starting safety Terrell Edmunds signed a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The team worked quickly to replace them, agreeing to terms with former All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson just hours after the Sutton deal was reported. Having already re-signed Damontae Kazee, the Steelers added Keanu Neal yesterday, days after Edmunds’ departure.
Sutton and Edmunds are arguably the only successful defensive backs the Steelers have drafted since Cortez Allen in 2011, who ascended into a starting role before his body fell apart and his career fell by the wayside. You could also include 2016 second-round pick Sean Davis in that group if you’re so inclined. But what is the overall impact of losing this duo from the 2017 and 2018 drafts, respectively?
“Let’s go easy on the Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds losses”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Gerry Dulac wrote during his latest chat earlier this week. “They are nice players but nobody is going to lose sleep over their departures. Good guys, though”.
I’m not sure it would be accurate, to Dulac’s credit, to describe either Sutton or Edmunds as anything more than “nice players”, solid starters. But do the Steelers have adequate answers installed in their place? How well can Patrick Peterson, who will be 33 when the season starts, hold up? Can Kazee and Neal successfully navigate the strong safety role together while providing complementary support without chemistry?
There is still the 2023 NFL Draft to get through, of course, and there’s a very good chance at least one defensive back is drafted who could be a starter this season. Obviously, the secondary already has one bona fide star in All-Pro free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, but the rest is all question marks at best.
Going into a season with Levi Wallace projected as a 1,000-snap player is not an ideal situation, even if it’s a palatable one. He might also fall under the “nice player” label, though certainly not so nice as Sutton (even if he had more interceptions last year).
The thing is, nobody was on this defense longer than Edmunds and Sutton, short of Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt. That’s a lot of experience to lose. The look of this defense, short of Heyward and Watt, has changed quite a bit just over the past few years.
Outside of the aforementioned Heyward and Watt, Fitzpatrick is the longest-tenured defender on the roster. And he’s been with the team since week three of the 2019 season. There is some value in having some carryover and consistency in your locker room.