Steelers bolster defense on second day of free agency

The Pittsburgh Steelers made another set of stunning moves on the second day of the NFL’s free agency “tampering period”. General Manager Omar Khan shifted from the day one focus on offense and special teams, over to the defensive side of the all, acquiring two players who start immediately this season.

The first of the two major announcements came mid-afternoon on Tuesday as the Steelers made a traditionally uncharacteristic move, not only signing a top player in free agency to the biggest outside contract in team history but doing so for a free agent from a division rival.

That player is LB Patrick Queen and the rival he’s coming from is the Baltimore Ravens.

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Queen, who turns 25 years old in August, enters his fifth NFL season after being named a second-team All-Pro in 2023. The former LSU product was linked to the Steelers back in the 2020 NFL Draft; however, Pittsburgh did not have a first-round selection after trading it to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for S Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Queen would be selected in the first round, 28th overall by the Ravens, in 2020. He would go on to play in every game over the last four seasons including all 16 in his rookie season where he finished third in the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.

Queen has 100 or more tackles in three of his four NFL seasons, missing the mark in 2021 by only two. He has 37 tackles-for-loss in his career, with at least nine in every season, plus 33 QB Hits, 13.5 sacks, and five forced fumbles.

Perhaps most importantly as a three-down linebacker, Queen has 15 pass deflections, including six apiece in his last two seasons, plus three interceptions in the same period.

Queen especially came on strong over his last two seasons when the Ravens acquired another inside linebacker, Roquan Smith. Smith would be inked to one of the largest contracts in league history at the inside linebacker position. This left Baltimore in a position where they were unlikely to re-sign Queen due to their salary cap, which includes a hefty contract signed last offseason for 2023 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson.

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In coming to Pittsburgh Queen should be able to replicate the same success and fill a large hole in the middle of the field that the Steelers have been trying to fill since the career-ending injury to Ryan Shazier. Khan took a swing at revamping the position last offseason, signing free agents Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander.

Unfortunately, Holcomb and Alexander both finished the season on injured reserve. Holcomb and Roberts are under contract through at least this season, but with Alexander yet unsigned, Pittsburgh set their sights on a massive upgrade with Queen.

Queen was targeted not only because of his play but due to his durability. He should stabilize the position alongside a returning Holcomb and Roberts.

The move should also assist Holcomb’s recovery from last year’s knee injury and preserve him from being an every down back: something that the Alexander signing was also meant to aide, but when Holcomb went down, Alexander was relied on more and was also injured: a recurring theme throughout the latter’s career.

Queen is also insurance in case Holcomb does not return to his previous form, which saw the first-year Steeler start to catch on in the middle of the season before going down to injury. Queen’s addition also helps Roberts, who is more of a run situation backer but was called upon to help in pass coverage due to the thin depth after his teammates were lost to injury.

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Khan’s other big move on Tuesday came as a huge surprise to many, as rumors of dealing WR Diontae Johnson in a trade came to fruition. Drafted in 2019, Johnson was entering the final year of his second contract with the Steelers.

He was traded to the Carolina Panthers in a swap of players and draft picks. A sixth and seventh round draft pick were exchanged, with the Steelers moving up 62 spots while sending Johnson to the Panthers for CB Donte Jackson.

Jackson, a second-round pick with Carolina in 2018, fills a major hole in the Steelers cornerback group, which is scheduled to lose Levi Wallace, James Pierre, and Chandon Sullivan to free agency. Veteran CB Patrick Peterson was also released within the last week, leaving Joey Porter Jr. as the only significant cornerback from the 2023 group remaining on the roster.

The 28-year-old six-year vet, Jackson has 76 starts in his NFL career which has seen some ups-and-downs. He was a coveted free agent back in 2022, where he signed a big three-year $35.1 million contract extension.

He has a rash of bad luck with injuries, suffering a season-ending groin injury in 2021 that limited him to 12 games, and a torn Achilles tendon in 2022 that shortened his season to only nine games played. However, he bounced back fully in 2023 to play 16 games but was viewed as expendable by the Panthers, who went 2-15 last season.

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It’s very difficult to gauge Jackson’s production in 2023, as the Panthers were in complete turmoil. They fired head coach Frank Reich, who was in the first season with the team, after 11 games. The franchise had one of the worst offenses and defenses in the NFL, surrendering over 30 points five times and failing to score better than 13 in ten.

With Joey Porter Jr. penciled in as the Steelers top cornerback, the hope is for the veteran Jackson to fill in the other starting role as “CB2”. Regardless of his bad experience with the lowly Panthers over the last few seasons, Jackson can be seen as an instant upgrade to the Steelers’ other options such as Peterson or Wallace and should provide play that’s above the board of other “CB2” players that have played in Pittsburgh over the last few seasons such as Coty Sensabaugh, Steven Nelson, and Ahkello Witherspoon.

If anything, the addition of Queen and Jackson signal an emphasis that the Steelers and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin have been looking for: speed. Queen ran a 4.7 40 at his combine while Jackson ran a 4.3 at his.

Adding the steady Jackson and All-Pro Queen to a defensive unit that already features names such as T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cameron Heyward, Alex Highsmith, Joey Porter Jr., and others, immediately bolsters the conversation of being one of the top units in the NFL.

Along with the additions of a new punter and QB Russell Wilson, Tuesday’s moves sent a message that Pittsburgh is serious about contending in 2024 and will pull out all of the stops to end their playoff victory drought.

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