The Pittsburgh Steelers are looking at replacing a fair amount of starters for the 2021 season. On offense, the Steelers have lost four starters on the offensive line, and technically Vance McDonald started the most games a tight end so he would be a loss of a starter as well. Add in James Conner at running back and the Steelers are down six starters on the offensive side of the ball.
When it comes to the Steelers defense, whether or not they lost two or three starters all comes down to perception. In recent years, the slot cornerback has been considered more of a starting role with the evolution of the NFL. If also counting this is a lost starter, the Steelers have three starting positions on the defense which will need replaced.
Although the new starting positions are not completely set in stone, as technically the old starting positions aren’t either, there is a pretty good indication in Steelers Nation who the possibilities are to fill in these roles. While on offense they used the combination of the NFL draft, players already with the Steelers, and free agents, the defense appears to strictly be promoting players that were part of their 2020 squad.
Does this give the Steelers new starters for the season an advantage? Although I don’t know if it gives the players themselves any edge, it gives the Steelers organization much more certainty due to the familiarity.
Any time the Steelers sign a free agent, they have a pretty decent indication of what the player can do based on their NFL experience. Will they be able to fit in the Steelers locker room and produce in the way they had in other places? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
When it comes to the NFL draft, we know how uncertain things can be regardless of the round selected. While the Steelers have not completely missed on most of their first-round draft picks, it really is a wildcard throughout all the rounds as to whether or not a player will pan out.
But if a player has already been with in the Pittsburgh Steelers organization, whether on the 53-man roster or the practice squad, the Steelers have a much better indication of what a player brings to the table. For example, while much of Steelers Nation is falling in love with James Pierre based on his very limited sample size from 2020, the Steelers have a much better indication of what they can get out of Pierre after seeing him work in practice throughout the entire year.
The fact the Steelers are choosing to likely go with players who have already been on the team to replace their defensive starters, it means they like what they had for the cost it took, especially in the cap-strapped 2021 offseason. When it came to Bud Dupree, although the Steelers made it clear they would like to keep him on the roster, they knew the price was simply too high and were ready to roll with Alex Highsmith. As for the two cornerback positions the Steelers need to fill, they basically made the choice to move on from these players rather than losing them otherwise. The Steelers could have chosen to give Mike Hilton a deal instead of Cameron Sutton, but they chose to lock in Sutton for the next two seasons. As for Steven Nelson, it was completely their call to release him as a salary cap casualty.
When it comes to replacing the two cornerback positions, player such as Cameron Sutton, James Pierre, and Justin Layne will likely get the first crack at the positions. When it comes to slot cornerback, safety Antoine Brooks may even get into the mix. All of these players are ones the Steelers are familiar with from 2020.
Of course, there are some new players who could get into the mix in regards to the sub-package players. Between seventh-round draft pick Tre Norwood and UDFAs Shakur Brown, Lamont Wade, and Mark Gilbert, they could earn a spot even though they were not with the Steelers last season. Adding some low profile signings such as Miles Killebrew and Arthur Maulet, there’s still a possibility the starting job could be snatched by one of these players. But the Steelers were ready to make their moves before they had all these players, so if they are the ones who end up in a starting role it will be because they outperformed the players the Steelers already had good indication of what they could do.
If you’re still uncertain about the Steelers having a good indication of what they have when they are promoting from within, Tyson Alualu fit this role in 2020 and had a good season in his first year as the Steelers starting nose tackle.
As I’ve said over and over again, sometimes Steelers fans just need to trust that the organization knows what they’re doing. The fact that the players on defense who are in line to take over starting positions in 2021 are ones the Steelers are already familiar with is a good indication that they are confident in their abilities. But just like anything else when it comes to projecting how things will work out for the 2021 season, it will all come down to production on the field.