As we did with the offense earlier in the week, here’s my 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers’ wishlist for defensive free agents this offseason. Guys I like and logical and financial fits for what the team needs and what they could be looking for. Of course, the team won’t sign all of these players but these are some guys who make plenty of sense.
Zach Allen/Arizona Cardinals
Allen is an underrated name about to reach free agency. Still just 25 years old and coming off a career-high 5.5 sacks, he’ll have several suitors this offseason. But if Larry Ogunjobi hits free agency, the Steelers will have a glaring need along the d-line next to Cam Heyward and Allen might be worth the money.
Allen has size at 6’4, roughly 285 pounds with long, 34-inch arms. He may have to add a little weight to play in Pittsburgh’s system but the Arizona Cardinals employed a similar system under then-DC Vance Joseph. He’s played over 1,200 snaps the last two seasons with 10 total sacks. In 2022, he recorded a career-high 25 pressures and a career-best 4.1% missed tackles rate.
It’s hard to peg his exact number but he won’t come cheap. Probably talking $8-9+ million per season though that obviously can be structured to keep the first-year cap hit down. With a defensive line class that’s on the thin side, it’s worth the investment into a young guy like Allen that’s playing his best ball.
Matt Ioannidis/Carolina Panthers
One of the guys I’d love to see this team sign. One of those Temple-tough guys who has always been strong against the run. After years in Washington, he signed with Carolina in 2022, playing 641 defensive snaps. His pass rush production has dipped in recent years, just one sack this past season, but he’s a run clogger that’ll free up the inside linebackers. That should make him relatively cheap, perhaps a two-year deal worth $12 million total that wouldn’t prevent the team from adding to the position in the draft. But he’s a trusted and as-expected veteran that plays the run hard.
A’Shawn Robinson/Los Angeles Rams
A throwback run clogger, Robinson only has seven career sacks in his seven-year career but he’s logged consistent snaps because of what he’s done against the run. Per PFF, he was top-25 against the run in 2022. In 2021, he was 7th across the league. Robinson isn’t going to provide great three-down value but can be a mountain in the middle and give this team a consistent and reliable nose tackle, replacing Tyson Alualu with Montravius Adams serving as the backup, who has a better get-off and can offer more in sub-packages if needed.
Though he’s heading into his eighth year, he’ll be just 28 years old for the start of the 2023 season. He’s going to command a decent price tag, nothing bonkers but definitely not the minimum, but he’d be the right way to start rebuilding the d-line inside out.
Andrew Billings/Las Vegas Raiders
The man I became convinced would become a Steeler in 2017, medical concerns pushed him down the draft. He never lived up to his college hype and isn’t the athlete he once was, now a wide-bodied plugger with a big lower half who takes on double teams and makes everyone else’s job easier.
After doing little in 2021, Billings bounced back to start 14 games for the Raiders in 2022, finishing up with 39 tackles. Advanced metrics were kinder to him, the 19th-best interior defensive lineman against the run this season.
He’s a guy I’ve had an eye on for several years now. 28 years old and affordable, he’s perfect in the middle of this defense rather than investing a draft pick into a two-down type.
Ben Banogu/Indianapolis Colts
Dot-connecting here. Banogu was brought in for a pre-draft visit back in 2019 and Pittsburgh loves circling back to those high-pedigree guys, the 49th overall selection of the Colts that year. His career though has been extremely quiet with his 2.5 career sacks coming his rookie season. Still, he’s logged over 500 career defensive snaps and saw an increased role on special teams last season, 56% of the Colts’ snaps. It’s worth noting his highest number of defensive snaps in 2022 came against the Steelers, making a pair of tackles.
He came out of TCU as a well-built, powerful, and athletic pass rusher and perhaps the Steelers’ scheme will be kinder to him. It is to most big-bodied EDGE rushers. 27 years old but with minimal numbers, he should sign extremely cheaply no matter where he ends up. This falls along the lines of “makes sense” more than “I really want this” but adding more EDGE depth competition is a good thing and there’d be little risk here if he doesn’t make the team.
T.J. Edwards/Philadelphia Eagles
Ok, now we’re getting into some heavy-hitters and frankly, some names you’ve probably heard before. Though I tend to bristle at the idea of the team adding another free agent/veteran inside linebacker but this is a strong class of options for Pittsburgh to explore. Edwards, a former Wisconsin Badger and teammates with T.J. Watt in college, is coming off back-to-back 130+ tackle seasons. While tackles alone are a sketchy stat to use, it speaks to his usage. In 2022, he was the team’s every-down linebacker, playing 94% of the defensive snaps this past year.
While Edwards didn’t record an interception, he deflected seven passes, including a highly-athletic play to get depth and play the seam on this late-game throw for TE Pat Freiermuth, picked off by S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
According to PFF, he posted the ninth-best coverage grade of all off-ball linebackers last season, logging nearly 700 coverage snaps, the byproduct of an Eagles’ team normally up late in games. Per Pro Football Reference, his missed tackle rate has been acceptable the last two years at 6.5% in ’21 and ’22.
Edwards won’t turn 27 until August and has a lot of football his belt. He won’t break the bank but he certainly won’t be cheap but the Steelers could sign him to be one of their starting inside linebackers next year. Perhaps that would allow them to cut Myles Jack and help offset Edwards’ deal.
Kyzir White/Philadelphia Eagles
The other Eagles’ inside linebacker. A college safety at West Virginia who spun down to full-time linebacker in the NFL, White posted 110 tackles last season. Technically, he only started eight games but saw the majority of the snaps, 84% and like Edwards, had seven pass breakups. His coverage score wasn’t as strong but he has range and hit power. Per PFR, White didn’t allow a single passing touchdown last year and QBs completed only 64.6% of their passes when targeting him. By a linebacker’s standards, that’s a strong number. Of linebackers with 30+ targets last season, that completion rate was the sixth-lowest in the league. Compare that to Devin Bush (30th), Myles Jack (40th), and Robert Spillane (62nd of 68 qualifiers).
26 years old, White should be cheaper than Edwards and used as a far better version of what Pittsburgh tried with Mark Barron.
Greedy Williams/Cleveland Browns
A former high pick that hasn’t had the NFL career he’s hoped for. In other words, the perfect Steeler. Pittsburgh met with him at the 2019 NFL Combine, he went 46th overall to the Browns as a lanky corner. His role and impact has slowly been reduced and he missed the entire 2020 season due to a nerve injury in his shoulder. In 2022, he was limited to only 105 defensive snaps, recording 11 total tackles across there and on special teams.
Still, he’s a 6’1 corner with speed and ball skills looking for a fresh start. He’s not someone you’re signing with the expectation to start but compete for a #3/#4 type of role. He’s a little like James Pierre, though Pierre is a better tackler and more physical player.
Amani Oruwariye/Detroit Lions
An unheralded name in a pretty good group of free agent corners, he’s quietly one-year removed from picking off six passes for Detroit. He has nine career picks but his value was dinged in 2022, starting only three games and failing to record an interception. It was a down year in production, his QB rating against shot through the roof, but his overall body has been better. He should be cost-effective and like Williams, not counted on as a starter. But he could be in the mix to battle Ahkello Witherspoon (or replace him if he’s axed) for a role and a veteran option if Cam Sutton can’t be retained.
Rock Ya-Sin/Las Vegas Raiders
Had the Steelers not traded up to draft Devin Bush in 2019, I really believe they may have taken Temple’s Rock Ya-Sin. With decent size and quality length, he’s had four solid but not spectacular NFL seasons and was traded from the Indianapolis Colts to the Las Vegas Raiders for the 2022 season. There, he allowed only one touchdown on 53 targets and a career-low 82.6 QB rating against.
He’s never been an uber-physical player or a great tackler, that was true of his Owls’ tape, but the perfect candidate the Steelers would come back to, especially if Sutton prices himself out of Pittsburgh.
Mike Edwards/Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If Terrell Edmunds were to leave, there’s going to be a need at SS, even if Damontae Kazee retains. And this team needs a long-term plan here. Drafted 99th overall in 2019, Edwards started a career-high 12 games in 2022, putting up 82 tackles (three for a loss), with two interceptions. He’s found a nose for the end zone with three pick-sixes over the past two years.
In our pre-draft report, we noted him as a physical and versatile player who would primarily play SS in Pittsburgh but can roll over slot against Twin WR sets or versus detached tight ends. His versatility will allow the team to rotate Minkah Fitzpatrick even more; Terrell Edmunds didn’t often play FS, leaving that to Damontae Kazee or Cam Sutton in a post-snap rotation.
2022 was a down year for him but he was stronger during 2021 in coverage and run defense. He’s not a great safety but he’s a more versatile player with some ball skills, something the team has been missing at strong safety for a while.
Jeremy Reaves/Washington Commanders
I can’t make this list without one special teams guy on here. Quietly, the Steelers could be losing several of those this offseason in WR Miles Boykin, ILB Marcus Allen, FB Derek Watt, and RB Benny Snell. There’s still Miles Killebrew but Pittsburgh likes to have a couple of those guys littering the back end of the roster.
Reaves had a great 2022, making his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro team (and you gotta love his reaction about it). His 16 special teams tackles were tied for second-most in the league. He served as the team’s upback on the punt team and could seamlessly replace Allen in that role as a core, four-phase special teamer.