Joe Kuzma’s Steelers 2021 defensive offseason wish list

Welcome to part two of my Steelers offseason wish list. In this edition I’m going to take a look at the defense and what my ideas are for Pittsburgh’s roster next season.

In case you missed it, here is how I opened the previous article about the offense – and then we’ll get right into it!

We’ve come to that time of the year when our team’s football season is over and we start fantasizing about how they can improve for the next season.

In a perfect world I would get my way with everything below. However, the world is far from perfect so the Pittsburgh Steelers will likely have a huge turnover in what their team looks like in 2021 versus last season.

Since I’m not in charge all I can do is speculate on what those changes could look like in the weeks ahead.

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Defensive Line

Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are under contract, but to do the “i” in the line, Pittsburgh needs to bring back Tyson Alualu. Alualu, who had a career resurgence as a Steeler, will turn 34 this May. He’s not a long-term solution but someone I’d bring back if they are able and willing.

Chris Wormley didn’t make much of an impact following his trade from Baltimore to Pittsburgh. He was oft-injured and unavailable throughout the season. He will be a free agent that I don’t as a priority signing.

Henry Mondeaux is under contract and saw some playing time in 2020. Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis represent a pick in each of the last two drafts for the Steelers and round out the depth chart. I’m not sold that any of them are more than substitutions or special teamers – not starters.

How the team moves forward all depends on Alualu’s return. I’d feel comfortable returning everyone listed and keeping this group as-is for 2021.

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Linebackers

It was fun while it lasted, but Avery Williamson more than likely won’t be back with the Steelers. His asking price, as well as an opportunity for playing time both hang in the balance with a position that will get rejuvenated when Devin Bush returns.

Vince Williams continues to be an excellent pass rusher and run stuffer. Everyone is aware of his limitations in the passing game, which is why the Steelers have Bush.

Robert Spillane proved to be a solid backup, giving the interior linebackers three good options. Ulysses Gilbert will get another chance in camp, but injuries have mounted up and may cost him his job to even a late round pick that’s added.

Bud Dupree is the biggest question mark – not because anyone doesn’t want him back, but it appears it will be impossible to pay him substantially what he’s worth.

Rookie Alex Highsmith filled in for Dupree and showed that he can be a starter in the NFL. The team will likely be forced to move on from Big Bud, leaving little depth at the position after you factor in perennial Defensive Player of the Year contender T.J. Watt and the contract he will soon command entering a contract season.

This leaves me to believe the Steelers could look for an edge rusher somewhere in the middle of all of those offensive linemen I’m begging them to draft. Of course, they could also find a dependable veteran as they did with Arthur Moats too. Regardless, I don’t see Dupree back in a black and gold uniform as much as it pains me to say it.

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Secondary

This is another position that pains me to say may not look the same in 2021. Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton are both set to hit free agency as well.

Hilton may be one of the best nickel corners in the league and offers such a dynamic to the Steelers defense that I’d make him a higher priority to bring back than even Bud Dupree.

Sutton is a Swiss Army Knife on defense, playing Hilton’s role, dimebacker, outside corner and safety at times. Versatility is key to the Steelers schemes and as a young player looking for his first contract, he’s someone I want back badly too.

Those two moves would have to come at the expense of Joe Haden, who turns 32 in April. Haden is due $15.5 million this season.

The team can save $7 million if they release him in what is the final year of his current deal.

I expect the Steelers to place a fifth-year option on the rookie contracts of both safeties, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. Both players enter the fourth year of their rookie deals and the team will have to make that decision a year in advance – although they can rescind it.

There’s some talk about Steven Nelson and his contract too. Nelson is due $14.4 million with a potential $8.2 million in cap savings. I don’t think Pittsburgh moves on from him in his final year of his deal, and at age 27 (as of January) he’s someone you want to keep around a bit longer.

The worst-case scenario is that everyone under contract stays, which keeps your entire starting secondary, barring Hilton at nickel corner, intact. If they move on from Haden, my priority is to bring back both Hilton and Sutton – with Sutton replacing Haden as an outside corner.

Hilton and Sutton both created many splash plays in 2020 and can help anchor this defense for several years to come.

Aside from that, I don’t think the Steelers have enough draft picks to replace all of the depth they could lose by letting everyone walk. While Justin Layne is waiting in the wings, the staff has appeared hesitant to play him – even going to James Pierre in the Wild Card game against Cleveland at times. Sutton was the outside corner until they needed subpackages. Opponents would pick up on the substitution and target Layne.

He could still develop into a starter, but I don’t see the Steelers solely relying on that at this time.

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