The NFL is a young man’s game. Draft evaluators are often attracted to younger prospects as they can have higher upside thanks to their untapped potential as well as the fact that they have less wear and tear on their bodies, suggesting they may have a longer career in the league than a 24-year-old rookie would. The same goes for free agents on the open market as younger players just hitting their prime or in the middle of it present a better long-term solution than free agents that have a great track record but are over the age of 30 and could be declining soon.
Still, there’s something to be said for age and experience. You often know what you are getting rather than banking on a player’s “potential” and hoping he can reach that upside relative to where he are currently is. Leadership is another often underrated quality that winning teams desire. Experienced players with a proven track record on the field are better suited, in most cases, to lead men in the huddle than some young buck who is just getting his feet wet or hasn’t held a prominent leadership role before.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have often prioritized youth when it comes to free agency, especially on the defensive side of the ball. However, this offseason the team opted to go the more veteran route, signing players with ample starting experience as well as proven track records of leading their respective teams.
Many (including myself) were surprised when Pittsburgh signed CB Patrick Peterson to a two-year deal shortly after losing Cameron Sutton to the Lions. Peterson is quite the decorated player as a top-five pick in 2011 as well as having multiple Pro Bowls and All-Pros to his name. However, Peterson will be 33 when the 2023 season starts, drastically going against the grain of the long-standing mantra of Pittsburgh signing defensive free agents under the age of 30.
Still, Peterson brings leadership and experience to the secondary as he was a two-time captain in Minnesota. The eight-time Pro Bowler also served as a captain five times with the Arizona Cardinals (2013 and 2015-18) before joining Minnesota in 2021. He is a player the members of the secondary as well as the entire defense would turn to for guidance on and off the field. The three-time first team All-Pro has started 184 regular season games in his 12-year career, having seen nearly everything an offense can throw at you.
Cole Holcomb was elected a team captain for the Commanders prior to the start of the 2022 season, coming off a 2021 season in which he was 10th in the league with 142 total tackles while also functioning as the signal caller and wearing the green dot for the defense. Holcomb’s former DC Jack Del Rio praised his leadership and play on the field, stating he played just as well or better than more publicized players at his position. The former fifth-round pick has started 48 of 50 games in his first four seasons, becoming an impactful contributor relative to his draft status.
Elandon Roberts is built in a similar mold to Holcomb, being a former sixth round pick that battled his way onto the field and hasn’t looked back. Roberts has played in 107 games in seven seasons, starting 76 of them with the Patriots and Dolphins, both of whom have had notable talent in their LB corps over the years. In 2019, Roberts was voted a team defensive captain for the first time with the Patriots and would become a team captain for the Dolphins after signing there in free agency.
While the influx of three new presumed starters will likely create some growing pains at the beginning of the year for Pittsburgh, the defense should benefit from the immense experience and leadership that Peterson, Holcomb, and Roberts bring to the table. The Steelers are adding 308 career regular season starts among these three players as well as former team captains at areas of need in ILB and CB. They should be expected to stabilize those respective positions as well as provide mentorship, whether by word or by example on the field, for the other members in their respective position rooms.
For a defense that already has proven leaders, including T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, injecting more battle-tested players who have been leaders of men can’t be a bad thing for a team looking to return to the playoffs and win its first postseason game in over a decade. Perhaps this shift of targeting older, more experienced veterans in free agency while supplementing them with younger players in the draft may be the recipe.
Not only for helping this defense return to prominence in 2023 but setting it up to be a well-oiled machine for years to come.