Nine times out of ten, a signing made by an NFL team in late-August is done because of an emergency need or because someone cut from another team is a minor upgrade to a depth player. In the case of trades, which are rare at any time on the league calendar, the requesting team is in freak-out mode over some urgent need.
So it stands to reason that anyone tracking the Pittsburgh Steelers’ transactions during the last few days might be taken aback by what has transpired.
It started on Tuesday afternoon. While all eyes eagerly awaited an announcement of who would be cut before the team headed to Charlotte, North Carolina (as the team had hinted), the Steelers did the unexpected and traded a fourth-round pick for the San Francisco 49ers’ starting tight end plus a fifth-round pick. That sent the Steelers Vance McDonald, a strong-yet-athletic tight end with impressive speed.
Then, late Wednesday afternoon after a long day of teasers, the Steelers signed Pro-Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, who had just been released by the Cleveland Browns. While the list of Browns’ players that Steelers fans would be excited about is short indeed, Haden probably was among the top-3.
The additions surely will have immediate impacts, but their impacts in 2018 and beyond are more interesting.
Based on the play of cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and William Gay so far during the preseason, it was becoming obvious the Steelers likely would have to get creative to keep their points-against number down in 2017. Either that or they’d have to completely abandon their desire to incorporate more man coverage, which likely would lead to a collective heart attack among Steeler Nation at the vision of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady once again carving up the Steelers’ secondary like a Thanksgiving turkey.
The addition of Haden’s 3-year contract, along with the potential evident in third-round pick Cam Sutton, means the Steelers may not need to look toward the 2018 NFL Draft’s early rounds again to find more coverage help. Along with second-year corner Artie Burns, Haden could make the outside cornerback position a sudden strength in Pittsburgh.
Rookie Brian Allen appears to have plenty of potential, too, despite still being raw and inexperienced. Mike Hilton has simply been the talk of the Steelers’ preseason for his ability to diagnose plays quickly and get to the ball. Aside from perhaps beginning to think about safety Mike Mitchell’s eventual replacement, the secondary might surprisingly become one of the team’s strongest units, a year or so down the road.
In McDonald’s case, he’s coming into the weakest position group on the Steelers’ offense. Even original starter Jesse James appears to be leveling off at merely stop-gap potential. Behind him, David Johnson was cut, while last year’s No. 3 Xavier Grimble had to be given a pass for his several dropped balls this pre-season.
The 2017 NFL Draft was one of the best in recent memory for tight ends, but the Steelers ended up walking away without any of them, despite the position being one of their biggest needs. That was topped off by Ladarius Green, who the Steelers acquired during the 2016 off-season, being cut after failing his physical. Presumably, he hadn’t yet recovered from the numerous concussion issues that limited him to appearing in a mere handful of games in 2016, ultimately placing him on Injured Reserve.
Should McDonald leap-frog James, it’s unlikely anyone would really be offended. James as a No. 2 TE is a solid option, with Grimble able to fill in for either one in a pinch. Once again, the addition of a single player changes the calculus for the entire position group and might make the position a luxury in the 2018 NFL Draft rather than a massive need. In fact, McDonald will be under team control until 2021.
There was one other move made Tuesday that also helped the Steelers set up for the future: rookie outside linebacker Keion Adams, who had received a great deal of praise from the coaching staff right up to the moment when he went down with an injury, was moved onto the Injured Reserve list, effectively red-shirting him for the season. This move allows them to stash an intriguing option at outside linebacker while James Harrison plays out what may wind up being his final season. Should Harrison retire, the Steelers will have an option immediately available to take his spot on the roster without needing to use yet another pick on the position.