If you asked any fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers what their favorite team needs to address most this offseason, you could bet your foam finger that the defensive backfield would headline the wish list. While the position of cornerback is as coveted as a Best Actor Oscar is to Leo Dicaprio, the position of safety is just as necessary to address.
With Will Allen at an advanced football age and not under contract, the only notable safeties currently with contracts are Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas. Suspect his first season in Pittsburgh, SS Mitchell emerged as a hard-hitting standout at his position. Thomas, a special teams ace, has struggled to learn the safety position and to get on the field. He may have run out of opportunities as a Steeler. It seems logical that Robert Golden is a safety the Steelers would want to keep. The 25-year old played increasingly as last season went on and filled in nicely at times. There's a genuine upside to Golden, but even if the Steelers resign him, that isn't merely enough.
Pittsburgh will most likely look for a safety in the draft, but time is of the essence and free agency offers some attractive possibilities. It is well known that the Steelers do not have a lot of cap space to work with, but Kevin Colbert knows how to move things around and has had success in the past at the position with finds such as Allen, Mitchell and Ryan Clark. Could he work some magic again this year? That is surely the hope. Here are the top five available safeties according to Pro Football Focus and the projected possibilities of them wearing black and gold in 2016.
1. Eric Berry - FS
Berry is the cream of a pretty good crop at his position. He's a top-tier safety and can play anywhere on the field. But Kansas City is going to make a major play to keep the Pro Bowler in red and gold and not let him even get to the open market and I would imagine the NFL Comeback Player of the Year wanting to stay with an organization and fan base that stood by him during his recent battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma.
2. Eric Weddle - FS
Weddle seems to be the choice of Steeler Nation. He is liked inside the Steeler organization also. Ryan Clark tweeted that he could wear #25. In his Tuesday presser prior to the Chargers game last October, Mike Tomlin had this to say about Weddle. "I love Eric Weddle, always have. He's so versatile. He's a sub-package linebacker. He plays strong safety. He plays free safety. He plays half-field, middle of the field. They blitz him. He's a do-everything type of player, and a good one." Sound familiar.
Weddle does possess some of the same characteristics of Troy Polamalu and the Steelers need a playmaker in the secondary. In some ways, Weddle does seem like a perfect fit for the Steelers. PFF still ranks him among the better safety men in the NFL and clam that his coverage skills are still very strong. However, he is going into his tenth season and coming off of a season in which he missed time with a groin injury. The key for the Steelers with Weddle is to kick the tires and bring him in, but not overpay a player that has just come off of a five year/$40M deal.
There are some complicated aspects regarding a deal for the bearded safety. At 31, Weddle could be a spark plug, a leader and a missing piece to a championship puzzle or a shell of his former self. The Steelers would be wise to be sure he is a perfect fit first.
3. George Iloka - SS
Bitter rivalries fall by the wayside when a player is looking for a payday and a team is looking for an impact player and a chance to rob their enemy. To the casual fan, George Iloka isn't a big name. But he is a big player both physically and metaphorically.
The 6'4" Iloka is one of the most complete safeties on the market due to his outstanding Defense of the run and the pass. Iloka's size causes him to match up well against the tight end. Something the Steelers struggled with greatly last season.
Cincinnati has two safeties hitting free agency, Iloka (age 25) and Reggie Nelson (age 32) and it's been hit did that they won't be able to keep both of them. Keeping the younger player seems like the logical choice and my bet is that Cincy will try to wrap Iloka up with more money than the Steelers can afford. But Iloka could be a great investment if Pittsburgh can swing it and they surely should try.
4. Reggie Nelson - FS
Mentioned above, the Pro Bowler and the NFL's 2015 co-interception leader may be the odd man out in Cincinnati due to a seven-year age difference in comparison with a teammate that is also up for free agency. However despite his age, Nelson has been more productive in the past five seasons than his first four. His coverage skills are better then Iloka's, but in this league production falls off a lot quicker in your 30s.
Despite what I noted above regarding the "all bets are off" strategy in free agency, I feel that the animosity runs too deep between Nelson and the Steelers, especially if the team sends Mike Munchak or Joey Porter to recruit him.
5. Tashaun Gipson - FS
If this was 2015, Gipson would have been more sought after. But after a stellar 2014, the Cleveland safety had a subpar year last season, where he struggled in coverage and was frequently out of position. But the entire Browns team had a dreadful year and the hope for the 25-year-old Gipson is that last season was an aberration. Gipson is a risk due to his inconsistent play and his high price tag.
The free safety is probably not at the top of the Steelers wish list, but he could be a plan B or C if he goes on clearance, which is unlikely.
Other Notable Free Agent Safeties
FS Husain Abdullah - Kansas City Chiefs
FS Walter Thurmond - Philadelphia Eagles
SS David Bruton - Denver Broncos
SS Tyvon Branch - Kansas City Chiefs
FS Dwight Lowery - Indianapolis Colts
FS Rodney McLeod - Los Angeles Rams
FS Isa Abdul-Quddus - Detroit Lions
SS William Moore - Atlanta Falcons