I should preface this article by pointing out that the remaining crop of NFL free agents are still free agents for a variety of reasons, the most obvious of which is the fact that many teams have deemed these players less valuable than other free agents or NFL draftees. At this point, the cupboard is decidedly bare.
Nonetheless, the list of available free agents includes former Pro Bowlers, first-round draft choices, and several players with legitimate Hall of Fame credentials. Teams in win-now mode—teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who need all the help that they can get to maintain their status as a Super Bowl contender—can benefit from adding veteran players late in the free agency period. Best of all, the majority of these free agents would likely only sign one-year deals, which makes them essentially risk-free. Here are five I think the Steelers should consider:
S, Tre Boston
Jeff wrote about this earlier, so I’ll direct you to his article. In short, Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell will be the starters, but the Steelers desperately need some depth.
RB, DeAngelo Williams
It is safe to say that Williams, who signed a two-year deal with Pittsburgh prior to the 2015 season, has been an invaluable contributor to the Steelers’ success over the past two seasons. In 2015, when Le’Veon Bell missed 10 games, Williams was an absolute workhorse, rushing for 905 yards on 200 carries and scoring 11 touchdowns. Most importantly, Williams allowed Pittsburgh to run their offense as if Bell was still in the lineup, routinely picking up key blocks and serving as a reliable escape valve in the passing game. Williams was productive once again for the first three games of the 2016 season as Bell served his second suspension, but was shelved after Bell returned against Kansas City. And not once did Williams complain about his role (or, more accurately, lack thereof).
Lots of veteran players say that their only goal is to win championships. DeAngelo Williams is one of the only players in NFL history who has truly exemplified this credo.
Now, Bell looks better than ever after an All-Pro season in 2016 and the Steelers drafted former Pitt star James Connor in the third round of the 2017 Draft. The latter figures to get the first crack at backup duties. However, after Bell and Connor, the Steelers have a gaggle of veteran washouts and unproven rookies. Signing Williams to the veteran minimum would give Pittsburgh plans B and C and allow them to return a fan favorite to their ranks.
CB Jason McCourty
Tackling, an area in which McCourty excels, was a major weakness for the Steelers last season, particularly in the secondary. Adding McCourty to the mix would give Pittsburgh a proven run-stopper who has started 90 games over the course of his career.
Cornerback isn’t Pittsburgh’s biggest weakness from a quantitative standpoint—there are currently 11 cornerbacks on the roster, after all. None of the 11 cornerbacks on the roster are top-flight options, which is fine, since the Steelers generally play zone-based Cover 2 schemes. This, however, requires strength in numbers.
Pittsburgh’s only proven commodities at cornerback are Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell and William Gay, though the latter regressed significantly in 2016 and isn’t a lock to make the final 53 man roster. Burns and Cockrell won’t be cut, but their roles are hardly written in stone. The Steelers could certainly benefit from adding a plug-and-plug cornerback to the roster.
ILB Gerald Hodges
The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t draft an inside linebacker in 2017, which makes it clear that they are comfortable allowing Vince Williams to assume Lawrence Timmons’ role opposite Ryan Shazier. Although Williams has proven himself to be a very capable linebacker in his limited game action, it remains to be seen if he is truly a starting-caliber player. Shazier is one of the best linebackers in the NFL when healthy, but has missed six games over the past two seasons due to injuries. The Steelers would be wise to invest in a solid backup to keep the train moving in the event of a catastrophe.
Hodges enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2016 in which he made 83 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions in 15 games, which makes his current employment status difficult to comprehend.
Of course, Hodges’ asking price could be too high, which could make sense given his age (26) and the deals signed by several of his peers. At this stage in free agency, any potential suitors will likely only be willing to offer Hodges a one-year deal. Hodges is young enough to bet on himself and accept such a deal.
S Aaron Williams
Williams, who reportedly considered retirement after suffering his second neck injury in as many seasons in 2016, is healthy and ready to resume his NFL career after six seasons in Buffalo.
The Steelers hosted Tre Boston for a visit, so they are clearly interested in adding some depth to their secondary. Before suffering his first neck injury in 2015, Williams was among the most promising young defensive backs in NFL, particularly from 2013-14, when he made 110 tackles and picked off five passes in 28 starts. Williams has experience at safety and cornerback, so he would definitely allow the Steelers to deploy him in a variety of sub packages.