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Just how much do the Steelers think a good secondary is worth, anyway?

With the decision to decline the fifth-year option for safety Terrell Edmunds, the Steelers could be one step closer to dismantling a secondary it took them a long time to build.

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Steelers announced on Monday that they will not be picking up the fifth-year option for safety Terrell Edmunds, their 2018 first-round pick.

I was a little shocked by this development, especially since it felt like the next step closer to tearing down a darn-good secondary that took Pittsburgh a long time to build into a force.

The first domino to fall was the free-agent defection of slot corner Mike Hilton in March. That wasn’t much of a surprise, and it helped that Cameron Sutton, who ultimately got a new deal of his own, was waiting in the wings to step in and take Hilton’s place.

The next domino was the release of cornerback Steven Nelson, a man who appeared (at least to a layman like me) to be about as consistent a player as any member of Pittsburgh’s defense after arriving in town as a free agent in 2019. Depending on what you want to believe, Nelson either wanted a raise or the Steelers thought his base salary in 2021—roughly $8 million—was too steep a price to pay and were looking for a team-friendly extension. Given the money Pittsburgh saved by releasing Nelson, and how quickly this happened, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

But that’s just speculation.

What isn’t speculation is the money Edmunds would have made had the Steelers picked up his fifth-year option for 2022: $6.7 million.

That didn’t happen, and now Edmunds could soon wind up as the next domino to fall in the quick dismantling of a unit that just became bona fide in 2019.

As Ron Burgundy said in Anchorman, “That escalated quickly.”

Obviously, nothing is over until it’s over, and Edmunds and the Steelers could work out a long-term deal for a little less per year than the value of the option.

But I wouldn’t count on it, especially if Edmunds continues to improve as a starting strong safety. The key word in that previous sentence is “starting.” A starting strong safety heading into his fifth season generally commands a decent contract in free agency. I realize Edmunds isn’t Ronnie Lott or Troy Polamalu, but he’s played well enough during his brief career to remain in the lineup.

In other words, he’s not Jarvis Jones or Artie Burns, either.

Even with the expected departure of Hilton during free agency, the Steelers secondary seemed promising on paper in 2021 with Joe Haden and Nelson manning the corners, Sutton taking over as the slot and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Edmunds as the safeties.

With the release of Nelson, does this mean Sutton will play on the outside? If so, who moves to the inside to play the slot in those sub-packages that aren’t so sub anymore? If it’s Sutton, Mr. Versatility, fine. But who plays on the outside? The excitement for James Pierre is nice and all, but it’s backed up by the smallest of sample sizes.

The last time we saw Justin Layne playing cornerback, he was boosting the passer ratings of quarterbacks who threw to receivers he was trying to cover.

As for 2022, you have Fitzpatrick and Sutton as the only sure things (and it’s still a little early to refer to Sutton as that) currently under contract.

My question to the Steelers is, just how much do they think a good secondary is worth financially?

Again, I realize Edmunds isn’t a star, but he is improving and still incredibly young. What do they think they’ll be able to replace him with in terms of quality, provided the two sides don’t agree on some sort of long-term deal?

One can ask similar things about the cornerback position. Just how much do they think consistent starters are worth? After all, they weren’t willing to pay both Haden and Nelson veteran-starter salaries beyond two seasons.

I keep hearing about how the Steelers didn’t want to tie up a lot of money in one position—Fitzpatrick’s fifth-year option, which they did pick up, will pay him approximately $10 million in 2022. OK, but that didn’t stop the Steelers from tying up a bunch of money in their successful offensive line in the previous decade.

According to Spotrac, defensive linemen Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt will eat up close to $30 million in cap space next year.

The Steelers certainly have to be fiscally responsible in the coming years. Yes, they have a lot of cap room opening up as early as 2022, but a good bit of that space will be closed by the presumed huge deals that T.J. Watt and Fitzpatrick will get. But even with mega-deals given to two All-Pro defenders, you’d think there’d still be enough room to keep the starting strong safety around.

I’m aware that a lot can happen between now and next spring. For example, the Steelers could acquire a really good safety in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. But even if they do, and even if he’s good, will they want to pay him when the time is right? Or maybe they’ll decide to move on from Fitzpatrick at that point.

The bottom line is it costs money to keep a good secondary together. I never expected the Steelers to keep this unit intact for a decade, but only two years?

After the days of Mike Mitchell and Artie Burns, let’s just say I was hoping to get more bang for my buck.