The Pittsburgh Steelers 9-6-1 season was a disappointment; there is no doubt about it. However, given their salary cap situation and the consistency of drafting at the bottom of the first round, it is favorable to note that the team enters the offseason with more cap space than they usually do and a higher draft slot than usual.
2019 is a crucial season for Mike Tomlin and the Steelers so it is imperative of them to take advantage of these situations. This still does not mean the Steelers are going to make a huge splash, but instead look to fill multiple holes and depth. With that in mind, who are some names that the Steelers could add value to boost their roster?
Edge Rusher: Preston Smith, Washington
The Steelers head into the offseason with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree entering his fifth year option season. There has been a debate about whether or not Dupree is worth his price tag right now, and the Steelers may be looking to extend Dupree at a cheaper year by year price.
Whatever they do with Dupree, they need depth and talent at the position. They overly relied on two players at the position last season and lack depth in their edge pressure. Preston Smith is a legitimate starter in the NFL and could provide the Steelers with a third pass rushing option, and the ability to move on from Dupree in the future.
The timing in which Smith is entering free agency could help the Steelers get at value. To start, his first three years showed an upward trajectory while his fourth season showed a step back. Smith went from a limited player as a rookie to collecting 4.5 sacks followed by eight in his third season. However, in year four Smith had just four sacks.
Bud Dupree has never had a season below four sacks, although his 20 sacks in four years are slightly below Smith and his 24.5 sacks in four years.
Still, Smith’s lack of production this season is where he could be let go by Washington and enter free agency. They are a team with salary cap questions. Smith also may not want to re-sign in Washington. While Steelers fans cringe the circus that came from a 9-6-1 season, the Washington fan base scoffs at what would have been considered a strong year for their franchise. Their season ended with Eagles fans invading their stadium and shutting them out. Players are still going to find stability in Pittsburgh.
Adding in that big names such as Demarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark and Dee Ford are all entering free agency as well means the market could be a bit suppressed for Smith.
If the Steelers can get Smith at a bargain after a letdown season in 2018, they should do it.
As shown in the play here, Smith still had the get off and ability to wrangle the quarterback.
Smith graded out similarly to Dupree as a pass rusher, and had 36 pressures in 2018, compared to 33 of Dupree. Where Smith is a significant upgrade over Dupree is in coverage and run defense.
Preston Smith graded out as a 73 against the run according to PFF compared to a 65 of Bud Dupree. Smith also had a 76 grade in coverage compared to 66 of Dupree. As shown in the play here, he is sound with his hands and has shown countless times of shedding blocks without over-pursuing. That seems to be what kills Dupree.
Smith can help on obvious run downs and can push Dupree as he enters his free agency season. The rotation of multiple pass rushers will keep them fresh and seeing Dupree as a pass rush specialist may help him rack up some sacks as well.
Other options: Aaron Lynch, Shaq Barrett, Markus Golden
Lynch is 26 and coming off of a strong season as a third pass rusher in Chicago.
Shaq Barrett has been depth in Denver his whole career. He is 26 and has a better injury report than Aaron Lynch with more sacks than Anthony Chickillo.
Markus Golden posted 12.5 sacks in 2016. He tore his ACL in 2017 and saw the Cardinals move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in 2018. Golden may be the cheapest of the bunch, he has upside and will want to get back to a 3-4 next season.
Linebacker: Deone Bucannon, Arizona Cardinals
Morgan Burnett complained about being a safety that was asked to play too much linebacker. Deone Bucannon was a safety in college who moved his position to linebacker in the NFL. Seems like a good fit.
Bucannon started his career as a dime player and quickly earned more playing time by compiling 86 tackles as a rookie. The next season Bucannon started at linebacker for 16 games. He compiled over 100 tackles, forced three fumbles and took a pick-six to the house, opening the door for defenses to play more sub-package football which is so prevalent today.
Bucannon took a bit of a step back but maintained quality cover status over the middle of the field. In 2017 Bucannon took a step forward regarding run defense and tackling, but saw his coverage skills drop and an ankle injury sidelined him for the end of the season.
In 2018, his head coach Bruce Arians retired, and his defensive coordinator James Bettcher moved on. A 3-4 inside linebacker was now miscast as a 4-3 outside linebacker. He never quite fit the scheme and put up his worst season, playing just 389 defensive snaps. In 2016, he played over 1,100 snaps.
There are two ways to look at Bucannon. One is that he was not big enough at under 220 pounds to hang at linebacker. The injuries mounted and he showed as a specialty player.
The other is that his career went south when the entire Cardinals run was blown up. He was miscast last season, and a team that is getting criticized for defending slot receivers with linebackers now has a chance to sign a linebacker that plays defensive back. Maybe he is a specialty player. The Steelers need his specialty.
Bucannon has issues against the run but has shown the ability to stick his head in and get after the run in the trenches.
The Steelers also have Jon Bostic and Vince Williams who are best in run defense and moving downhill with strength. With the veteran communication and speed of Bucannon, the Steelers could mix and match better with Williams and Bostic and put themselves in better spots to maintain versatility and speed over the middle of the field.
Other options: Jordan Hicks, K.J. Wright,
These are two players who could only come in as bargains because of their injury history. Wright played in just five games this season, missing the beginning of the year and being brought along slowly. He did finish the season healthy and played well in their playoff loss to the Cowboys.
Wright is 29 and has played in a 4-3 scheme for most of his career. However, coverage has always been his best attribute, and he allowed a 64 passer rating in 2017, a season in which he played all 16 games. To put that in perspective L.J. Fort allowed an 89 passer rating in coverage.
Jordan Hicks is younger than Wright but has more injury questions. However, he could come in with the same idea in mind. Hicks is a run and chase linebacker who started 12 games for the Eagles last year. At age 26 the Steelers could want to add his speed into the mix at a lower price.
Safety: Clayton Geathers, Indianapolis Colts
The Steelers should not stop at getting a coverage specialist at linebacker. That will help, but the team should also look to add depth at safety to put more defensive backs on the field. The Steelers added another secondary coach because they anticipate more defensive backs on the field next season.
A player such as Clayton Geathers could be a great compliment to Deone Bucannon in the box. Geathers is a safety but played 297 snaps in the box for the Colts last season. He is a downhill run defender who can lay big hits and hold pass catchers short of the sticks.
Geathers lacks a bit in coverage and has injury questions, the biggest being a concussion in 2017. He played 12 games last season. However, the Steelers are not going to sign him to be their starting safety. Terrell Edmunds took steps forward as a rookie and Sean Davis played just one season at free safety. Geathers could be the third safety who would play the role that they intended Burnett to play. Geathers is physical and has the size to match up on tight ends.
The combination of Bucannon and Geathers would give the Steelers a lot of versatility in sub-package football considering both have experience in the box as run defenders. The Steelers could get a young player than Morgan Burnett to play the Burnett role at a potentially lower price.
Other options: Jimmie Ward, Adrian Phillips
Jimmie Ward played for four coaches in five seasons and wound up being schemed out this season. He is a bit undersized but has played outside, slot, dime safety, and free safety. Ward is a former first-round pick and is going to get no buzz without a true position. The Steelers want versatility in their back end; they should ask him where he wants to play and see if it fits what they need.
Adrian Phillips moved from safety to linebacker when the Chargers drafted Derwin James. The Chargers famously started seven defensive backs in the playoffs but had typically played six all year thanks to Phillips. Phillips allowed a 59 passer rating in coverage this past season. He is precisely the type of player they are looking for.
Cornerback: Morris Claiborne
Claiborne has been written off as a bust by many but has put together two solid seasons for the New York Jets. Last year he posted a career high two interceptions, taking one to the house for six. Claiborne had a strong start to his 2018 before allowing 14 catches over the final three games. Before that, he was allowing just 2.4 receptions per game. Overall Claiborne allowed an 84 passer rating in 2018. On top of that, he was providing strong run defense and tackling.
Claiborne is a former first-round pick who got off on the wrong footing to his career. He is 28 and has played in one playoff game. He battled through injury to be active for the game after putting his best regular season together with the Cowboys. Then, he put in 15 games in back to back to seasons for the Jets. Joe Haden was entering his age 28 season and played in 18 games in two seasons before signing with the Steelers. Sometimes a first-round pick needs a second chance. Claiborne earned the opportunity to play for a winner after his two years with the Jets.
He played on the right side each of the last two years, which is the side the Steelers have a hole at. The Steelers should look to the high-end athlete who is ready to play for a winner next season.
Other options: Eric Rowe, Darqueze Dennard, Bradley Roby
Eric Rowe missed most of 2018 with an injury but should be healthy entering the offseason. He has been up and down as a cornerback, but the Patriots have gotten value out of him as a chess piece. Rowe is 6’1 and can jam wide receivers and tight ends. The Patriots have put him outside, in the slot and in the box to jam bigger threats on the inside. The Steelers could use his versatility.
Darqueze Dennard is getting a lot of talk from Steelers fans but he played for Terryl Austin on the Bengals last season, and Austin was reportedly let go because the defensive players did not like the changes he was trying to make.
Bradley Roby has had a worse start to his career than Claiborne. However, he is three years younger than Claiborne. Roby played with Ryan Shazier in college, and the Steelers have always been interested in Ohio State athletes. They certainly could try to get a bargain on a player they surely have scouted intently before the 2014 draft.
The Steelers may not make a big splash. However, they should be able to put together a combination of these players to fill each position with a veteran presence, communication and depth.