Status quo free agency movement from the Steelers quietly strengthens their roster
At the onset of the NFL business year starting, and with it, the beginning of the free agency period where teams begin to shuffle their deck in hopes of fielding a roster capable of contending for a championship.
The Pittsburgh Steelers entered free agency with quite a few holes on their own roster, especially after shipping away one of their all-time greatest wide receivers, Antonio Brown, to the Oakland Raiders.
A franchise content with building through the draft and making shrewd moves when it comes to signing free agents, the Steelers have been quite active this offseason in shoring up some key areas of their team. Everyone knew that wide receiver was a potential hole to fill with Brown leaving, but some other areas of concern were also addressed.
Let’s take a look at the team’s recent free agent signings and how they will help strengthen the Steelers roster.
Starting at the top with a receiver, Moncrief was an under-the-radar acquisition. Once highly lauded as a third-round draft pick with the Indianapolis Colts, Moncrief fell out of grace in Indy as Andrew Luck’s career went on hiatus as well.
Flashing signs of stardom, Moncrief was in a logjam of receiving talent on his former team in much the same way he may have been if the Steelers were still sporting last year’s receiver room. With Brown leaving, it looks like Moncrief is an insurance policy in the event last year’s second round selection James Washington doesn’t pan out or if Pittsburgh fails to draft a receiver this year that will help out from the start.
The potential depth chart at this time has JuJu Smith-Schuster as the top receiving threat, followed by two slot receivers in Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer, then Moncrief and Washington. Capable of playing multiple spots, Moncrief adds position flexibility within the receiver room and could allow offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to operate JuJu, TE Vance McDonald, or even RB James Conner out of the slot. When that look changes, we’ve seen the new Steelers OC (as of last season) deploy four and five receiver sets too.
Moncrief will fit right in right away and help the Steelers offense maintain some continuity. We shouldn’t look at his signing to be an AB replacement, but a supplement to help spread around Brown’s targets which can now be distributed among all of those names mentioned above. I’d place him in spot with a higher priority than previous signings Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter, provided another option (a rookie yet to be named or James Washington) supersedes his playing time.
Regardless, we should still look to see about a 20-30% snap share minimum for Pittsburgh’s newest receiving threat.
The Steelers need a cornerback? They should draft one!
Wait, that never works… maybe they should see who they can get for cheap!
Wait, that never works either…
Those are the sentiments of many critics of Steelers GM Kevin Colbert. Their statements aren’t necessarily wrong, as a myriad of cornerbacks have come and gone over the last decade in the Steel City, many with marginal (or lesser) success.
The Steelers had tried to plug in their holes in the secondary with frugal acquisitions from elsewhere and also through the draft. Brandon Boykin failed to be their answer at nickel corner following multiple injuries to then second round draft pick Senquez Golson.
Cortez Allen was given a big contract only to bomb out of the league.
William Gay returned to help, but also wasn’t the lockdown corner the team was searching for. Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh all attempted to fill that role as well as 2016 first round pick Artie Burns: and to all, to no avail.
The lone bright spot among this bad streak of players in the secondary was a one-year “prove it” deal with Brice McCain, who was hardly the answer either, however, his above average play netted him a strong free agent deal elsewhere when his lone season in Pittsburgh expired.
Then, low and behold a gift came to the Steelers when their division rival, the Cleveland Browns, released former Pro Bowl corner Joe Haden. Haden has been a godsend for Pittsburgh, giving them a true shutdown cornerback. However, the side opposite Haden has been lacking with the regression in development of Burns and several other young players and/or veterans unable to pick up the slack.
Enter Steven Nelson, who had his best season as a pro in 2018. Nelson was perhaps the lone bright spot on a porous Chiefs defense and exhibits a hard-nosed style which should instantly endear him to Steelers Nation. Should Nelson’s stock continue to ascend, he could be every bit the 1b to Haden’s 1a on the depth chart: but as of now, he’s only being relied on being a “CB2” which means he’s not only an instant upgrade over the additions to the secondary in the past, but he has an opportunity to be one of Pittsburgh’s best free agent signings in years.
I look for Nelson to create a solid cornerback tandem with Haden on par with other duos we’ve seen in the league over the years, such as Aqib Talib and Chris Harris in Denver, or Talib paired with Marcus Peters for the Rams last season.
With Odell Beckham Jr. entering the Steelers schedule twice a year now, the Steelers made a clever, low-key move to make sure their opponents don’t sneak up on them. The Browns are already getting favorable odds to win the Super Bowl (always updated at Unibet online casino) and Nelson gives them the opportunity to cover the rest of their division’s weapons: that means even conference foes Kansas City and New England.
When added to their improved safeties, solid nickel corner Mike Hilton, and what looks to be their new dimebacker, the defense may finally have the needed pieces to be a formidable unit once again.
Linebacker help? Check.
Safety help? Check.
Another area the Steelers have desperately tried to address for years was how to cover opposing tight ends. In a pass-happy NFL, defenses now have to account for larger receiving threats while also making sure they aren’t left vulnerable in the running game.
Who can forget the New England Patriots or Dallas Cowboys coming into Heinz Field several years ago and imposing their will upon the Steelers? It was a chess match of who Pittsburgh would field in the middle of their defense. Sure, Ryan Shazier was still here and his loss is still one the team is trying to overcome, but primarily the Steelers defense attempted to stop the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten with either a true inside linebacker (Lawrence Timmons or Vince Williams in some cases) or a makeshift dimebacker such as William Gay or Sean Davis (prior to his now defined role of free safety).
The result was a disaster which unraveled further when Shazier got injured. Place a linebacker out there and the opponent would pass to their big targets. Place a defensive back out there and watch the size mismatch take place as LeGarrette Blount and Ezekiel Elliott gained large chunks of yards.
That has to stop and the Steelers attempted to plug that leak last season with the signing of Jon Bostic and then in the draft: they missed out on acquiring any of the big names in the draft and moved on with their long-time developmental project L.J. Fort.
Fort became a free agent this offseason and despite attempts to bring him back, he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, leaving a position of weakness even weaker. Bostic showed bright spots but everyone knows that Ryan Shazier is impossible to replace. They also know that Morgan Burnett, a veteran defensive back brought in last season as a potential starter at strong safety, has been vocal about leaving after injuries reduced his role to nearly nothing. (And he clearly doesn’t want to play as the dimebacker either.)
Enter Barron, a cap casualty from the L.A. Rams who has played both safety and linebacker at the college and pro levels.
Barron offers position flexibility for the Steelers. He could be the day one starter next to Vince Williams in the base 3-4 or play passing downs in the interior of the field. He can also fill those mismatch issues as a dimebacker. While there’s thoughts about whether he’s a good/bad signing, Barron is definitely an upgrade over Fort, and if Fort was already playing more snaps than Jon Bostic, we can assume this signing has Barron over him on the depth chart at this initial time too.
Checking all of those boxes off helps the Steelers further focus on taking the best players available. Prior to free agency, wide receiver felt like it could be the team’s top need. So did linebacker and so did cornerback.
Now there are more options available to them. Pittsburgh won’t have to reach for a need. Doing so in the past is how they ended up with poor fits such as Jarvis Jones, or rushing rookies such as Bud Dupree and Artie Burns onto the field before taking the usual Steelers slow pace approach to developing their young talent.
The team can now look at further bolstering some positions. Both inside and outside linebacker appear to be needs, but I can’t rule out looking at cornerback or even a wide receiver early in the draft, if they feel it will provide future depth.
Also don’t rule out the plethora of tight ends available this year as well. With Jesse James signing with the Detroit Lions, the team currently has Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble as their top options. If one of the top draft prospects slides into their selections, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they took a player they felt was the best on their board.