The Pittsburgh Steelers finally made a splash in the 2019 NFL free agency pool by announcing an agreement with former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson.
The news came after another report had the organization linked with former Denver Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby, who was rumored to turn down a three-year deal from the Steelers for a more lucrative single-season contract with the Houston Texans.
Again, critics of the Steelers who are adamant the team fix “problems” in their secondary wanted Pittsburgh to sign a free agent to do so. With little cap room and maybe not the biggest market for the position available this offseason, the team was doing their due diligence as they always do this time of year and looking to add a component that would be the best fit for their franchise both as a player and within the confines of the salary cap.
Enter Nelson, a name most fans had never heard of until this signing… which is also the reason for most of the negative attention drawn upon this acquisition. Nelson may not be a household name, but then again, the Steelers don’t need a household name as they already have a shutdown corner in Joe Haden.
All they need is a respectable number two, who could possibly even flirt as a CB1.
That’s where Nelson comes in, as he was one of the few bright spots on a porous Chiefs defense last season. Some will be quick to point out that individually Nelson gave up the most yards of any cornerback last season, however there are fair reasons for that being a null fact: the biggest being that the Chiefs offense scored gobs of points and put their opponents backs against the wall.
When you’re down early and/or big, what do you do? Pass the ball! The Steelers had to against the Chiefs in Week 2 last season as did most every other team Kansas City played. The Chiefs defense face the largest number of pass attempts of any team in 2018. While it's true he allowed the most passing yards in the NFL in '18, Nelson was targeted eight times more than any other corner in. Per Pro Football Focus (PFF) he had a 53.1% catch rate and only a 82.8 passer rating allowed. He also forced 20 incompletions, which was tied for second in the NFL last year.
Putting that into perspective, Nelson’s arrow is trending upward based on his recent play:
-20 forced incompletions (T-2nd, CB)
-4 interceptions (T-3rd)
-53.1% reception allowed % (T-8th)
-82.8 passer rating against (24th)
-2018 Grades: 72.1 overall, 71.2 coverage (both 28th) pic.twitter.com/5izgwAzxW5
— PFF KC Chiefs (@PFF_Chiefs) March 12, 2019
As the standout of the Chiefs secondary last season, Nelson projects to be a much better player on the outside than in the slot; which is where the Steelers will need him most. Despite being labeled “short” at 5’11”, Nelson plays like he’s 6’2”. He’s a physical athlete who always gives his maximum effort and he should add some grit that the Steelers defense desperately needs.
He’s not without his shortcomings, however. At times Nelson gets caught with some tightness in the hips, and when the ball is in the air he doesn't get his head flipped around as consistently as you'd really like to see.
But the stats and splash plays make up for it. He’s an opportunistic player who had as many picks as the entire Steelers defense did last season and breaks up more passes than fans have seen anyone in a black and gold jersey since Troy Polamalu terrified opponents.
In fact, Nelson graded higher than many high-profile corners in 2018 according to PFF. Consider there are 32 teams and each team should have a “CB1” on their roster. This news could give the Steelers more than the “CB2” that Nelson is viewed as being.
— Tommy Jaggi (@TommyJaggi) March 13, 2019
This was also while leading the Chiefs defense in snaps by a sizeable margin last season. So, while fans and analysts alike question the Nelson signing, there’s something to be said about him being a better football player and a less risky signing than Roby or the oft-injured Ronald Darby.
With 38 career starts under his belt, the Steelers are getting an underrated player who doesn’t have the pressure of being the team’s top cornerback. It also allows them breathing room in drafting (and starting) a rookie at the position. They can now be patient and potentially groom what could be Joe Haden’s heir.
And that move doesn’t even have to happen this season, now with Haden, Nelson, Mike Hilton, and Cameron Sutton lining the depth chart, and perhaps one last shot given to Artie Burns to prove he can compete at this level. That makes the Nelson signing a versatile one which could end up being a steal for the Steelers in years to come.