While the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers enjoyed numerous defensive successes, the end result of the season was a disappointing 45-42 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Divisional Round playoffs, an outcome that was largely due to a defense that found itself struggling to cope with the loss of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier after he was injured in early December. That game, and several other unnecessarily close contests to inferior offenses, showed that the defense, while not as bad as some would have you believe, also was not as good as the numbers indicated.
In short: they didn’t pass the eye (or smell) test.
The back-end of the defense was one of the biggest culprits. Safety Mike Mitchell, who was already under the microscope for below-the-line play in a solid chunk of his timw in Pittsburgh, was dreadful at times. A visible lack of closing speed and a reckless style led to a number of huge plays that might have otherwise not succeeded, and his play over the last two seasons has not justified what will be a price tag north of $8 million in 2018. Cutting him now would save the team $5 million, which should be more than enough to sign a high-caliber replacement while still saving cap space for this season. There are quite a few good options who are set to become free agents in March.
Eric Reid (2017 team: San Francisco 49ers)
Many a Steelers fan has longed for the chance to redo the 2013 NFL Draft, with the Steelers opting to select Reid with the 17th overall pick, rather than outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. Jones will be remembered as a pass rusher who couldn’t get to the quarterback at the professional level, while Reid will be remembered as one of the few bright spots, league-wide, in the 2013 Draft, especially in the first round.
The Steelers could have a chance to take that mulligan once the free-agency period begins for the 2018 NFL season. Reid is not just available; he is also coming off a slightly down year, which could depress his market value a bit. There are a glut of solid safeties available, which could further ease the cost of signing him.
What Reid brings to the table is the kind of hybrid safety the Steelers like: someone who may not have the greatest range, but who has enough of it, while also being an adept tackler and a hard hitter.
Reid could likely be had for around $9 million per year. With a four year contract that includes a signing bonus around $6 million and a base salary of $2 million in 2018, that would save the Steelers $1.5 million this season while making a significant upgrade at the poition.
LaMarcus Joyner (2017 team: Los Angeles Rams)
Joyner enjoyed a bit of a breakout season in 2017, pulling down the first three interceptions of his career. That he had three picks in 12 games is a bargaining chip in his favor; that he had zero in the preceding 40 (15 starts) is certainly a warning flag, and could depress his value a little. Still, after the way the Rams’ defense played in 2017, he’s going to command a pretty high price tag. The Steelers could offer roster bonuses and, perhaps, an option bonus in 2019 as a prove-it-and-we-will-pay-big signal, but that could drive him to other teams willing to take the big risk that his production in 2017 was merely a result of growth, and not an anomaly.
Joyner does some things very well. Despite being a free safety, he is definitely a hard hitter, and he does so with his head up and leading with his shoulder, rather than going for the blind knockout we see so often with Mitchell. He tracks the ball well, and has the ability to man-cover and read routes, giving him the opportunity to undercut and make plays. He was the beneficiary of some bad throws in 2017 on two of his three interceptions, but he showed good closing speed to be able to get into position to make those plays in the first place.
Tre Boston (2017 Team: Los Angeles Chargers)
Boston could be the easiest of the bunch to sign, and might be the most fun to watch. His long hair and ability to play either safety position well is reminiscent of none other than Troy Polamalu. He has good-to-very-good change-of-direction ability, and top-notch acceleration and closing speed. He shows the ability to play off deep receivers, baiting quarterbacks into misreading and throwing into double coverage.
Boston’s speed brings another dimension, as well: with the Steelers getting the secondary much more involved in rushing the passer in 2017, Boston’s ability to play in the box is an asset in the passing game, as well as the run game. He has multiple sacks in his career,and could be used in that capacity in Pittsburgh.
Boston had a breakout year in 2017, leading the NFL in interceptions. However, in the three years prior, he had just three interceptions total. His 2017 salary of just $900,000 could leave him open to taking a smaller contract than Joyner or Reid, and he could probably be had for an average of $8 million per year. That could leave him with a low cap hit in 2018: a four-year, $32 million contract with a $6 million signing bonus and just $1 million in salary this season would only count $2.5 million toward the cap, halving what the Steelers would be on the hook for if they kept Mitchell.
There are other options available, too: T.J. Ward, Michael Thomas and Tyvon Branch, among others. The market is good for the Steelers to find a new free safety in 2018.