NFL free agency is right around the corner, and the 2022 free agent class is a strong one. Considering the Steelers will have more money than normal to work with in free agency, there are likely to be more roster moves than normal this March. With excitement raging among the fan base, it is time to take a closer look at which free agents the Steelers should consider signing.
Between now and the middle of March, I will be breaking down each position’s outlook in free agency, listing the top players at each position and determining which ones make the most sense for the Steelers. Today, we will be looking at two positions the Steelers will likely look to add someone at this offseason: cornerback and safety.
As it currently stands, the Steelers have an estimated $34,018,712 to spend, and that number will likely grow. Potential cut candidates Joe Schobert, Zach Banner, Chris Wormley, Joe Haeg, and Derek Watt could free up as much as a combined $20,584,352 in the event each player was cut. It is true this team has plenty of needs, but it is encouraging to know several of these needs can be filled with quality free agent signings, thanks to the unusually large amount of cap space.
Let’s begin with the cornerbacks.
Here are the top cornerbacks available in free agency based off 2021 average annual value, per Spotrac.
Stephon Gilmore (Age: 31)
Joe Haden (Age: 32)
Kyle Fuller (Age: 30)
Chris Harris (Age: 32)
Patrick Peterson (Age: 31)
Bryce Callahan (Age: 30)
Jason Verrett (Age: 30)
Kevin King (Age: 26)
Xavier Rhodes (Age: 31)
Darious Williams (Age: 28)
J.C. Jackson, Carlton Davis, Levi Wallace, and Charvarius Ward did not make the list but will all be hot commodities when free agency begins.
The Steelers’ current depth chart at cornerback is as follows:
Joe Haden (unrestricted free agent)
Akhello Witherspoon (unrestricted free agent)
Cameron Sutton (under contract through 2023)
James Pierre (under contract through 2022)
Justin Layne (under contract through 2022)
Isaiah Johnson (under contract through 2022)
Based on the current Steelers depth chart, the Steelers must address the cornerback position, whether it be with a top-end free agent or an early-round draft selection. While I am not in favor of bringing back Akhello Witherspoon, it seems imminent considering the draft capital the Steelers used to get him in the first place. The wild card is Joe Haden. If he comes back, I expect it to be on a cheap deal as a depth cornerback. The slight regression loss of speed was evident last season, which indicated that his best role would be as a mentor who does not have to play significant snaps.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at who I believe the Steelers should consider at cornerback.
The Steelers have tried band-aids at this position for a while. Coty Sensabaugh, Akhello Witherspoon, Steven Nelson... the list goes on. Some were higher profile than others, but none were considered true lockdown corners, with Joe Haden being the only exception. It is time for the Steelers to get out the checkbook and get a surefire lockdown corner. Jackson has developed into a top-five corner in the NFL, and he will certainly get paid as such. Nonetheless, a lockdown corner is the only thing this defense needs to be complete, and the Steelers have the money to get one.
The Steelers traded what was potentially two fifth-round picks for Akhello Witherspoon, while Carolina sent one sixth-round pick for Gilmore. Granted, Gilmore was dealing with an injury, but still, it would have been much nicer to land the former Patriot corner who is still playing at an incredibly high level. Gilmore was limited to only eight games, several of which he did not “start,” per se. However, he only gave up 15 receptions last year, which was a big reason for his solid 77.1 PFF grade. I realize that Gilmore is not the youngest corner available, but he has several good years left in him.
Jackson is a little riskier because of his inconsistency, but there is a need for a true nickel cornerback in Pittsburgh. Jackson is a speedy slot corner who has developed into a solid option for Carolina. He lacks the size to play on the outside, and he brings almost no versatility outside of special teams, but the Steelers do not need more versatility. They need someone who can replace Mike Hilton’s role as the full-time nickel, as Cameron Sutton struggled in the slot after being moved to the outside for awhile. This one would likely come down to money, but if the Steelers can find their number one outside corner in the draft, a guy like Jackson would make logical sense in free agency.
Other potential signings: Isaiah Oliver, Desmond King
Ideal scenario: Steelers let Joe Haden and Akhello Witherspoon walk while signing J.C. Jackson to a deal north of $15 million per year. A more likely scenario would be for the Steelers to bring back both Haden and Witherspoon and sign a Levi Wallace or Donte Jackson.
Here are the top safeties available in free agency based off 2021 average annual value, per Spotrac.
Tyrann Mathieu (Age: 29)
Devin McCourty (Age: 34)
Marcus Williams (Age: 25)
Marcus Maye (Age: 27)
Quandre Diggs (Age: 29)
Kareem Jackson (Age: 33)
Rodney McLeod (Age: 31)
Juston Burris (Age: 28)
Keanu Neal (Age: 26)
Anthony Harris (Age: 30)
The Steelers’ current depth chart at safety is as follows:
Minkah Fitzpatrick (under contract through 2022)
Terrell Edmunds (unrestricted free agent)
Miles Killebrew (unrestricted free agent)
Linden Stephens (under contract through 2022)
Donovan Stiner (under contract through 2022)
Based on the current depth chart, the Steelers will need to either bring back Terrell Edmunds or find a replacement. They are also quite lacking when it comes to depth. While safety may not be talked about as a position of need for the Steelers, it is definitely an area the Steelers will need to add someone at, even if it is simply depth behind Edmunds and Fitzpatrick.
Here are three players I believe the Steelers should consider signing at safety.
Edmunds is perhaps the most unfairly criticized player on the Steelers roster. He is never going to be the one who makes a boatload of splash plays, but he is one of the best safeties in the league when it comes to covering tight ends. I encourage each fan who dislikes Edmunds to recall what the Steelers’ coverage against tight ends looked like before he arrived. It had been a major issue since the final years of Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator, and after Ryan Shazier’s young career came to a halt, the Steelers were once again in dire need of someone who could man up against tight ends.
Edmunds has been that guy for the Steelers, and that reason alone is enough to bring him back. Not only is he a fantastic complement to Minkah Fitzpatrick, but he also fits what Teryl Austin wants to do on defense. This is one player the Steelers need to prioritize in free agency.
I am not trying to be bullish on my Michigan boys, but in the event that Edmunds is not retained, Peppers is an intriguing name. The Steelers love hybrid defenders who can wear many hats and play multiple roles. One big reason why this signing would make sense is that Peppers has excelled in the slot. He is the furthest thing from being limited to a box safety role, as he has played meaningful snaps at linebacker, nickel cornerback, and even a tiny bit of outside corner. He is also an ace special teamer and an explosive punt returner, something that many Steelers fans would like to see the team find this offseason.
The downside? His price tag. To be fair, Spotrac’s projected market values are always on the high end of the spectrum, but they are projecting him to receiver $12.5 million per year on his next contract. I think he will sign a deal in the $8-10 million range, but either way, this would be a luxury signing for the Steelers, who would likely be better off by just bringing back Edmunds.
Killebrew was a standout special teamer in his first season with the black and gold, and he was sound in coverage in the limited snaps he saw on defense. The biggest reason to bring him back, however, is his familiarity with Teryl Austin. I firmly believe he has gotten the most out of Killebrew, both in Pittsburgh and in Detroit. While many fans do not see his importance to the team as a whole, I encourage you to look at the Steelers’ coverage on special teams this past season. It was noticeably better than in years past, and Killebrew was a big reason why. He is a fantastic depth piece to have on this current defense.
Other potential signings: Justin Reed, Jayron Kearse
Ideal Scenario: Steelers bring back both Terrell Edmunds and Miles Killebrew. In Edmunds’ case, I expect a multi-year deal for about $5-6 million per year. His price may be lower than expected due to the deep pool of safeties in free agency.
Which cornerbacks and safeties would you like to see the Steelers consider in free agency? Which of the Steelers’ pending free agents at those positions would you like the team to re-sign? Be sure to light up the comment section below with your thoughts on this and all things Pittsburgh Steelers!