Upgrading Steelers’ Secondary Is Key Says NFL Next Gen Stats

NFL free agency begins on Monday with team’s across the league looking to improve their team as they hope to build a team that can compete for the Super Bowl. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, despite them normally not being too active in free agency they will still make some signings, even if they aren’t ones that will make heads turn. The other day, NFL Next Gen Stats Analytics Team outlined the three positions Pittsburgh needs to address in the open market.

Despite Pittsburgh spending the bulk of their money on the defense, Next Gen Stats believes the Steelers’ top three needs are on that side of the ball naming cornerback, safety, and linebacker.

“It may seem odd to suggest the Steelers will spend much of their time focusing on what was their biggest strength: pass defense,” wrote the Next Gen Stats Analytics Team when addressing Pittsburgh’s need in the secondary. “After all, their secondary recorded the third-lowest completion percentage over expected (-3.0) in the NFL in 2022. However, several defensive backs are set to hit free agency, a list that includes cornerback Cameron Sutton, who allowed the fourth-fewest receptions over expected as the nearest defender in coverage last season (-9.5).

Cameron Sutton has to be a priority re-sign for Pittsburgh as he put up great numbers this past season and was the team’s most consistent cornerback. Sutton allowed only a 65.3 passer rating against last season as he picked off three passes and broke up 15. If Sutton is re-signed I don’t expect the team to go out and grab a top cornerback in free agency, instead electing to wait until the NFL Draft in what is a deep cornerback class. Now, if he is not re-signed I believe Pittsburgh will make a push to sign one of the top corners on the market. Don’t rule out a depth cornerback signing in free agency either.

Moving onto the back half of their secondary at the safety position, Pittsburgh has a decision to make on two of their own. Both Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee are set to hit free agency, and while one will likely come back the odds of both are slimmer. In a perfect world the Steelers can bring both Edmunds and Kazee back and run the three safety set with Minkah Fitzpatrick that the coaching staff was drooling over this past season.

With at least one of Edmunds and Kazee likely returning I think it makes linebacker the biggest need for Pittsburgh in free agency. The inside linebacker unit just hasn’t been the same since Ryan Shazier’s injury and after a good year stopping the run, the NFL Next Gen Stats Analytics Team says that with the pending free agents at linebacker the Steelers must make sure to shore up that position.

“As for the unit’s ability to stop the run, the expiring contracts of linebackers Robert Spillane and Devin Bush could also leave the Steelers vulnerable. Pittsburgh allowed just 29 rushing yards over expected in 2022 (seventh-fewest in the NFL). Continuing their defensive domination in all areas will be important for the franchise going forward as its young quarterback continues to develop.”

The odds that Devin Bush returns are extremely low, and a middle linebacker corps of Robert Spillane, Myles Jack, and Mark Robinson is not only average at best but also very thin. Pittsburgh can certainly upgrade over any of those guys and I expect them to do that this offseason. With a free agency market that has a bunch of good inside linebackers, I think general manager Omar Khan will choose to address the position in free agency rather than in the NFL Draft.

Pittsburgh won’t make any big splashes in free agency, but they will definitely try and use it to help fill out needs. If I had to make a guess the team’s biggest free agent signing will be at the inside linebacker position with the team likely bringing in a safety or cornerback for depth. Don’t rule out the Steelers adding a wide receiver in the coming weeks as that could be a move Khan decides to make in his first encounter as general manager with free agency.

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