The legal tampering period in the NFL started off slow for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but later took off with Pittsburgh losing CB Cam Sutton to the Detroit Lions and answering that loss by agreeing to terms with CB Patrick Peterson just a couple hours later. Given Pittsburgh’s long-standing business model when it comes to defensive free agents, this CB swap on the roster comes off as a little bizarre.
Khan, when asked about Sutton and his impending free agency at the NFL Combine a couple of weeks ago, stated that they had started discussions with Sutton and his representatives as Pittsburgh thinks “very highly” of Sutton. In fact, Khan said the same day that he intends to prioritize their own guys in free agency over guys on the market from other teams, stating that Pittsburgh has several players that they would like to keep. This matches the long-time philosophy former GM Kevin Colbert followed. Draft. Develop. Retain.
This was definitely not the case yesterday with Pittsburgh allowing Sutton to walk in free agency on a three-year deal to the Detroit Lions while their response was to sign Peterson who will be 33 years old by the start of the 2023 season. Based on the principles that Colbert abided by during his tenure of two decades with the team, it appears that Khan and assistant GM Andy Weidl aren’t afraid to buck these old trends…at least to an extent.
Pittsburgh rarely opted to sign defensive players over the age of 30 during the Colbert era as outside free agents who hadn’t previously played with the team. OLB Melvin Ingram was a bit of a surprise back in 2021, even though the need was there for a capable third edge rusher behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. The team has often prioritized youth and potential rather than older veterans that carry more experience but are seen more as a “quick fix” than a potential long-term solution.
This is where Khan and Colbert appear to be different as Khan may be looking at this situation from a more analytical perspective. First, Sutton agreed to a deal worth $11 million per season and $22.5 million guaranteed, according to Ian Rapoport. On the other hand, Peterson reportedly agreed to a two-year deal worth $14 million ($7 million per season) with a $5.85 million signing bonus. This is significantly less than the financial commitment Sutton got from Detroit and may have been a big factor in Pittsburgh’s willingness to move on from Sutton for Peterson, who was had for $4 million less annually and only a fraction of the guaranteed money.
While the team may think highly of Sutton, it’s no secret that coach Mike Tomlin thinks highly of Peterson given their previous interactions over the years. Khan and the Steelers likely let Sutton walk and targeted Peterson not expecting much of a drop off in play (positional versatility is another story) with Sutton not often considered a top-flight CB1 and Peterson still performing at a high level but getting long in the tooth.
Does this mean that we should expect Khan to continue to prioritize age and experience with free agents more than Colbert did? I wouldn’t say that, but we should expect Khan to be more willing to move off this model when it comes to making cost-effective deals to sign players that can still contribute at a better rate. With several younger ILBs coming off the board during the first day of the tampering period, I will have my eyes on older off-ball LBs like Bobby Wagner and Lavonte David — both are over the age of 30 — to see if the Peterson deal was just a coincidence or if Pittsburgh is indeed changing its ways.