Entering 2021, the Steelers and their fans expected the team to field another stellar defense. Fresh off of a record-setting extension for T.J. Watt and the addition of Joe Schobert, expectations were lofty for a stifling Steel Curtain. However, Pittsburgh’s defense largely wavered in 2021, especially after the loss of Tyson Alualu after Week 2: the Steelers surrendered 361.1 yards per game, which ranked 24th, and yielded the most rushing yards in all of football.
Following a defensive disappointment, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert swiftly reloaded. Colbert retained Ahkello Witherspoon and Terrell Edmunds while inking Levi Wallace, Myles Jack, Larry Ogunjobi and Damontae Kazee, not to mention adding Brian Flores as a senior defensive assistant.
From a quantitative perspective, the Steelers were not shy to dole out cash to defenders, especially factoring in making Minkah Fitzpatrick the highest-paid safety in the league. As you may have seen circulate on social media graphics, Pittsburgh boasts the most expensive defense in the NFL at $125,655,298, per Over the Cap (OTC) — a figure that is also the most exorbitant for any D in NFL history.
Any portrayal of the most- or least-expensive units will garner attention, but it seems the Steelers shelling out the most cash for their defense has been particularly scrutinized, possibly due to the team’s offense being the least monetarily allocated. The logical progression is that since Pittsburgh is investing more money in its defense than any other team in the NFL, it must be the best.
On the surface, that would appear to be correct thinking. However, there are several factors that indicate that that conclusion is an oversimplification.
Let’s start with analyzing the individual breakdown of the Steelers’ defense for 2022.
Watt’s cap hit of $31,118,694 this year ranks fifth in football and first among defensive players; the edge rusher alone accounts for 14.46% of Pittsburgh’s entire cap. Further, Cam Heyward has a cap hit of $17,406,250.
Some may think that in light of the amount of cash the Steelers have given to their defense, a multitude of players are costing $10+ million on the books. Yet Watt and Heyward are the only defenders to exceed that threshold.
The player with the third-highest cap hit in 2022 is Fitzpatrick at $8,124,235, a minimized figure by new general manager Omar Khan. Focusing on just the Steelers’ top three defensive expenses reveals that the triad will cost $56,649,179; in other words, the team is devoting 45.1% of its spending on defense to just three players.
Moreover, Pittsburgh has no shortage of defenders that are rather cheap: only six players on D are slated to cost at least $5 million, including Ogunjobi, Devin Bush and Cam Sutton.
Peeling back the layers even more underscores how well Khan & Co. have done to minimize spending. Wallace and Witherspoon have a combined cap hit of just over $5 million, while Edmunds and Kazee have a joint expenditure less than $2.3 million. Additionally, players such as Alex Highsmith, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Tre Norwood and DeMarvin Leal are on rookie contracts.
It can be easy to view the Steelers as bringing the Brinks truck to the UPMC with regularity, but that’s largely not true. Of course, possessing two of the highest-grossing earners at their positions will drive up costs, but Tomlin is not ushering 11 players making north of $10 million onto the field each week.
Another major flaw with the argument of correlating pure spending with success of a unit is not considering outside factors, such as draft picks and year-to-year changes.
In the Steelers’ case, only one of the franchise’s first five picks (Leal) was on the defensive side of the ball. Granted, this could be due to pre-existing costs, but the Steelers didn’t invest much 2022 draft capital in their defense.
Likewise, per Spotrac, only $37,807,500 of the $108,612,500 Pittsburgh spent in free agency was on D. Offensive players such as James Daniels, Chuks Okorafor and Mason Cole garnered bigger contracts, even though the black and gold added the aforementioned defensive pieces.
More generally, there is an inherent danger with looking at spending in a vacuum.
Take the Jaguars’ offseason transactions. Per Spotrac, Jacksonville leveraged $271.15 million in free agency this cycle, inking players such as Christian Kirk, Brandon Scherff, Darious Williams, Foye Oluokun and Foley Fatukasi. While the Jags did undoubtedly improve, did the team have the best offseason, let alone free agency period, of any squad? Probably not.
The NFL is a complex infrastructure, and costs alone do not reflect team investment or interest in a player, position group or side of the ball. Do the Chargers feel ill will toward Justin Herbert because he’ll make a hair over $3 million in cash this season? Absolutely not.
I touched upon the Steelers having the least-expensive offense for 2022 earlier. Some could view an absence of costs as Pittsburgh entering a transitory year and not prioritizing scoring points.
Conversely, Mike Tomlin & Co. have very much prioritized offense. The reality is that numerous key pieces (Najee Harris, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Pat Freiermuth, etc.) and current rookies (Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Calvin Austin III) are on rookie deals, driving down cap hits.
Historically, too, it’s unrealistic to expect a team that cashes the most checks on defense to rank as the best overall unit in the league. Take a look below at the last nine most-expensive defenses (according to OTC) and how they finished in Football Outsiders’ regular-season Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA).
Most Expensive Defenses
Notably, only the 2016 Broncos slotted as the best overall defense, and that was subsequent to a historic 2015 season. All in all, the average DVOA for those units was 9.44 — a far cry from first. Consequently, we should recognize that purchasing power does not typically lend itself to the best outcomes.
It would be ignorant to claim that prodigal teams don’t want to put out the best product they can; anything short of a top defensive season for the Steelers will be yet another disappointment, especially due to the historic cost. One can very much glean front offices’ intentions based on cumulative cap hits for an incumbent season.
At the same time, total cost is just one of several ways to slice the performance pie as it compares to expected production, and spending shouldn’t always be reflective of estimated success. For example, not even a fan bleeding Honolulu Blue would predict the Lions’ offense, costing a league-high $123,302,224, to be the best in the NFL. Similarly, the Browns are viewed as having a stout defense despite it being the cheapest in football.
Ultimately, while distributing money should be associated with results, the actual outcome is usually far more complex, in part due to skewed costs, other types of transactions and historical trends. In accordance, we should change our thinking regarding the Steelers and other top and bottom spenders, focusing more on roster talent and construction and less on simple cash totals.