As the seconds tick by during the seemingly slow period of the NFL offseason between the end of the season and the Combine, fans can’t help but project toward free agency and the Draft. After all, with such few major events — aside from straggling hires being made and cuts, like that of QB Derek Carr — there’s little for enthusiasts to do besides twiddle their thumbs and go to the roster drawing board.
Consequently, there has been plenty of time for Steelers fans to contemplate the team’s strategy entering the 2023 offseason. While Pittsburgh is not totally in need of any legitimately major overhauls, questions loom over positions that need reinforcing and players to keep, add or dump.
With a look to next season, it’s abundantly clear that Mike Tomlin’s team is devoid of much talent at linebacker and cornerback, especially due to contracts that have effectively expired. In part, that’s due to the looming free agency of CB Cam Sutton.
Sutton, a third-round pick by the Steelers in 2017, has consistently solidified himself as a playmaker for Pittsburgh’s defense. The Tennessee product ranked third on the team in defensive snaps from 2020-22, trailing only Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds — becoming a cornerstone in the back-end.
It’s not only familiarity and availability that make Sutton valuable, however. The near-28-year-old picked the perfect time for his best career season, which occurred in a contract year. Across 16 games, Sutton secured a career-high three interceptions and batted a career-best 15 passes, amassing a 71.6 Pro Football Focus grade — which ranked 17th among corners to play 900 or more snaps. Additionally, Sutton ranked well in advanced metrics, finishing tied for ninth among cornerbacks in EPA allowed and permitting an average of 1.8 yards of separation per target, per NFL Pro.
Though he’s never made a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro list, Sutton has established himself as a valuable cornerback, especially due to his versatility. In his career, Sutton has suited up at outside corner on 1,846 snaps relative to 906 at slot and 417 in the box.
Given Pittsburgh’s current constraints at cornerback, why would the team not want to keep a player that it’s known for over six seasons, and who has flourished? The answer comes down to not only money, but also need for improvement.
In light of both his 2022 breakout and cumulatively solid play, Sutton is in for a pretty hefty payday in the coming weeks. Spotrac estimates Sutton to have a market value tantamount to a deal worth three years and $22.9 million; however, given that corners like Charvarius Ward (three years, $40.5M), Donte Jackson (three years, $35M), D.J. Reed (three years, $33M) and Darious Williams (three years, $30M) all cleared that expected threshold last year, it’s safe to say Sutton will be paid more than $7.6 million annually.
Another factor that should augment Sutton’s worth? A relatively lackluster free agent crop of CBs.
Yes, there are some notable names, including James Bradberry — who was superb en route to the Eagles’ Super Bowl run. Besides Bradberry, though, Sutton is likely no worse (if not better) than players like Patrick Peterson, Jonathan Jones, Rock Ya-Sin, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Eli Apple, Amani Oruwariye and Jamel Dean. Especially considering how good his 2022 was, Sutton is likely going to be one of the most heavily pursued corners on the open market.
As of now, the Steelers are not exactly slated to go on a spending spree, totaling only $163K in cap space, per OvertheCap. With restructures and cuts, Omar Khan could near $30 million in cap space, which is more than feasible to make necessary roster shifts.
At the same time, the Steelers don’t necessarily have the capability to afford Sutton on a deal worth, say, $10 million annually given that they should also keep other notable departees (e.g., Larry Ogunjobi, Terrell Edmunds), extend Alex Highsmith and have room for other maneuvers. If Pittsburgh really wanted to, it could backload a deal for Sutton; after all, the team is projected to have $111 million in cap space next offseason. However, making that type of delayed contractual promise doesn’t exactly feel likely, especially when corner-needy teams with money to spend (e.g., the Falcons, Raiders or even Giants) could grant more in the short term.
Financially speaking, too, it behooves Khan and the Steelers to get a cheaper cornerback of a similar, if not better, caliber for a longer period of time on a rookie deal. By going CB at Pick 17, 32 or 49, Pittsburgh would be able to add one of a slew of premium corners in this year’s class, benefitting from youth, immediate impact and less monetary burden.
The other major element deterring a lucrative extension for Sutton? He hasn’t exactly lived up to the billing of a true lockdown corner.
Sutton allowed more than 50 yards in coverage in a game just twice all season, per PFF. Nonetheless, Sutton had games where he wasn’t exactly flawless, including giving up 41 yards to Jakobi Meyers in Week Two, 37 yards against Tee Higgins in Week 11 and 32 yards to Amari Cooper in Week Three. To be clear, his 2022 was phenomenal, but Sutton was still susceptible to mistakes and surrendering yards in key situations.
For as good as he was last season, Sutton has still not outwardly defined himself as a bonafide shutdown corner. To commit $10-13 million annually to a player that isn’t a reliable CB1 seems like risky business.
Yes, teams like the Jets (signed Reed and drafted Sauce Gardner) and Jaguars (signed Shaquill Griffin for three years/$40M and drafted Tyson Campbell) ended up paying corners only to draft their top options months later. Those teams, though, searched for two or more starting CBs — as of now, the Steelers really only need one opposite Levi Wallace, though Wallace’s contract is up in 2024.
To reiterate, Sutton is a very good player and deserves to be paid as such. If the Steelers are able to keep the veteran corner on any type of discounted price, that should absolutely be pursued; after all, he’s only called Pittsburgh home and only appears to be getting better.
Yet, to get in a bidding war over Sutton — only to still need a No. 1 cornerback after the fact — doesn’t seem like the best allocation of Pittsburgh’s money or resources in a pivotal offseason for the franchise.