Adding a veteran player would follow Steelers offseason pattern

For the first few days of free agency the Steelers have been predictably quiet, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to make moves. If we follow the Steelers prior patterns of signing players in free agency, we can see that they like to supplement their depth charts at questionable positions by bringing in veteran help as necessary. This allows them to be patient in the draft by bringing in an affordable outside player who could man the position if necessary, and not having to “reach” during draft day for a rookie who might not pan out in the pros.

Essentially, the Steelers could also “double down” on a position of need by signing and drafting a player at those positions. This has happened frequently in recent years.

In 2014, the Steelers were suffering from back-to-back 8-8 seasons in which they failed to make the postseason. In order to provide some insurance at certain positions, Pittsburgh would double-dip at those spots in free agency and the draft. For example, the Steelers signed defensive line depth by picking up Cam Thomas from the Chargers, but would also select Stephon Tuitt in the second round. In that same year they would also sign slot receiver Lance Moore, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, and speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey, while also picking Martavis Bryant in the fourth.

During that same offseason, the Steelers also added LB Arthur Moats to supplement their uncertain future at outside linebacker, where they drafted Jarvis Jones in the previous year, released LaMarr Woodley, and were working on locking up Jason Worilds. (If you recall, James Harrison left the team in 2013 for a one-year stint with the Bengals, and had announced his retirement in August, before making a comeback which lasts to this day.)

The Moats addition allowed the Steelers to focus on drafting an inside linebacker instead, which turned out to be Ryan Shazier.

Some more peace of mind occurred in 2015, when the Steelers brought Heyward-Bey back on another one-year deal, while also drafting WR Sammie Coates, to supplement Bryant’s four-game suspension.

Will Allen was another retread who came back in 2014, and again in 2015, to help relieve any concerns that Shamarko Thomas couldn’t become an NFL starter. Similarly, CB William Gay and S Robert Golden were inked to a three-year deals last season, while the team spent their top two picks on CB Artie Burns and S Sean Davis.

Last season, swing tackle Ryan Harris was brought in, and Jerald Hawkins was drafted in the fourth round, in case LT Alejandro Villanueva would fail to live up to expectations (he did not). Versatile DL Ricardo Mathews also signed as a free agent, while the Steelers opted to take Javon Hargrave in the third as well.

That gave Pittsburgh a lot of options along the offensive and defensive lines, plus the secondary. If the rookies were capable, they would play. If not, the veterans could hold down the fort.

The pattern of signing veterans, and later drafting new blood, could mean the Steelers are working on doing similar deals this offseason. Their reluctance to pull the trigger on high-dollar deals doesn’t mean they won’t eventually aim, then shoot. In fact, there are several players making visits with the team this week:

Davon House is a boundary corner who could add some solidarity to a secondary which could lose Ross Cockrell (either this year as a restricted free agent, or next as an unrestricted free agent). The Steelers used Will Gay as an outside corner to start the 2016 season, before Artie Burns was ready to step into the role. An injury to Senquez Golson nixed any plans of him playing on the outside, or in the nickel, which meant S Sean Davis had to play the nickel position until Burns became a starter.

Signing House would avoid shifting pieces around, which proved to be problematic early on. With Golson as a complete unknown, and Gay capable of playing either corner position, House would provide much-needed depth and experience. Davis could stay at safety, and if the Golson pick pans out, the move could be a win/win situation.

Also don’t sell the Steelers out of doubling down on taking yet another corner, who could sit like Burns early on, and wait until its the right time to start. The moves would allow them to move on from Cockrell in the future as well.

Dont’a Hightower‘s visit is intriguing. The Steelers were originally linked to drafting the linebacker in 2012, but settled on taking offensive lineman David DeCastro, when top-ten projected lineman fell to them at pick 24. (Hightower would be selected by the Patriots with the very next pick.)

Hightower would fill a giant hole left by the departure of LB Lawrence Timmons, who was the highest-paid player on the Steelers defense last season, and signed with the Miami Dolphins over the weekend. Timmons’ cap hits over the last three seasons were $11.8 million, $9.2 million and $11.1 million respectively. Hightower’s fifth-year option with the Patriots was $7.7 million last season, a year in which he made his first Pro Bowl. He has been making many visits, and expects to cash-in soon, with New England still expected to make a push to re-sign him, though the rumored asking price is $15 million per year.

That price tag could push him out of the Steelers plans, but many analysts feel Dont’a will only get around $10 million per season. If that were the case, the lower cost could be affordable for the Steelers.

Should the Steelers not allow Hightower to leave the Steel City without a contract, they have the cap space to potentially make him an offer that they wouldn’t make for Timmons. Pittsburgh would immediately get younger at the position with the swap (Timmons turns 31 in May, and Hightower turned 27 just days ago) without any apparent drop-off in talent.

Such a move would help the franchise focus on the only other glaring necessity in the draft: an edge rusher.

That’s not to say that Hightower, or any other free agent would be a done deal. The Steelers have already insulated themselves at inside backer by signing Vince Williams to 3-year, $5.5 million contract last offseason. Williams has 17 career starts, including four in 2016.

Regardless, the Pittsburgh pattern of being patient has yielded good results in recent years. I understand that players like Cam Thomas and Lance Moore burned out quickly, but the concept wasn’t to solely rely on them in the first place. Those signings paved the way for players like Stephon Tuitt, Martavis Bryant, and others, to learn and grow into the players they were expected to be.

In other words, when the Steelers “double down”, they are looking for one full-time contributor to emerge when the dust settles. If and when Pittsburgh splashes into free agency, we can anticipate a similar deal which will appear unspectacular on the outside, but have the inner workings of creating a Super Bowl contender, on the inside.

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