Heitritter: Despite Active Start To Free Agency, Steelers Need To Add A ‘Big Meanie’ To Middle Of The Defense

GM Omar Khan has been a busy man since the tampering period opened Monday to kick off the NFL’s free agent frenzy.

Shortly after losing CB Cam Sutton to the Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh agreed to a deal with eight-time Pro Bowl CB Patrick Peterson to fill the starting spot vacated on the defense. The Steelers then had a busy Tuesday, re-signing S Damontae Kazee and DL Larry Ogunjobi to fill needs with starting-caliber players. Then they went outside the organization to land IOL Nate Herbig, who figures to compete with Kevin Dotson for the LG spot. Earlier today, Pittsburgh agreed to a deal with LB Cole Holcomb, fill a need at off-ball linebacker with Robert Spillane headed to the Las Vegas Raiders.

While the Steelers have addressed on several key needs to start free agency, they still have plenty of holes left to fill. Kazee could step in at strong safety if Terrell Edmunds leaves this offseason, but more safety depth is needed along with a capable OLB behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. Peterson figures to start opposite Levi Wallace on the outside, but the team needs to add a starter at slot CB along with more youth and depth on the boundary. Pittsburgh could also stand to add more depth at OT and WR, with minimal depth behind their projected starters.

However, one position still lacks a true “starter” and that needs to be addressed in free agency: nose tackle.

Montravius Adams is currently slated to start at NT, and while he had flashes in 2021 when he jumped on the proverbial moving train, he struggled with consistency in 2022 as more of a gap penetrator than traditional block eater in the middle of the defense. Ogunjobi and Cam Heyward best project at the 3 tech/4i in Pittsburgh’s defense and played out of position last season when asked to line head-up on the center. Therefore, signing a capable nose tackle should be near the top of Pittsburgh’s priorities in free agency.

Several players on the open market have been linked to Pittsburgh. Andrew Billings is a player that some Steelers fans (including myself) fell in love with leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft. He fell to the fourth round due to injury concerns. He has proven to be quite the run defender over the last few seasons and is coming off a solid 2022 season with the Raiders. He represented himself well in the middle, clogging up running lanes as a stout 6’1, 328lb man. Still 28 and coming off a one-year, $1,187,500 pact, Billings represents a cheap signing that immediately fills a need with a serviceable starter.

Outside of Billings, there are a couple of options under the game of 30 that Pittsburgh could go after. Greg Gaines has played well for the Los Angeles Rams in his first four seasons as a stout run defender (6’1, 312lb) who also has some pass-rush juice (8.5 sacks the last two seasons). Still only 26, Gaines may cost more on the open market, but could be a long-term solution at the position. Another player to target with championship pedigree is Chiefs DL Derrick Nnadi. The 6’1, 317lb defender is a two-time Super Bowl champ and started 69 games for Kansas City over the last five seasons. More of a run stuffer, Nnadi plays with great effort at the position.

Other players over the age of 30 that could interest Pittsburgh include DL Michael Brockers — the team showed interest in him back in 2012 — Justin Ellis, Johnathan Hankins, and Mike Pennel. All profile more as big, nasty space eaters in the middle of the defense.

While these options aren’t as ideal compared to the names listed above, Pittsburgh should prioritize adding a capable nose tackle before turning to the draft. While I am personally a fan of Baylor’s Siaki Ika and think that Michigan’s Mazi Smith or Texas’s Keondre Coburn would fit well in Pittsburgh, it would be wise for the Steelers not to force their own hand in the draft due to the need at the position. Let these players fall to them at a value.

With plenty of time before the draft in late April, Pittsburgh can evaluate all its options and fill other needs while re-signing some of their own players. Still, I would prefer for Pittsburgh to address nose tackle with a cost-effective veteran rather than feeling pressured to take a rookie high in the draft and start him right out the gate.

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