There weren’t many other options the Pittsburgh Steelers could have taken to keep their secondary together this offseason due to the financial burdens of last year’s COVID-19-impacted season. The salary cap dropped $15 million from where it was in 2020, amounting to about a $25 million swing from where teams likely expected it to be.
But now they have to replace these pieces, or at the least figure out who the fifth defensive back will be. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick knows “it’s part of the business”, however. “It’s the next man up. We’re still figuring out what we’re gonna do, it’s still early, but come week one against Buffalo, we’re gonna have it figured out”.
Arguably the two most likely candidates are those who return from last season, Justin Layne and James Pierre. The former is a 2019 third-round pick, while the latter made it as a college free agent a year ago. Both did see some defensive playing time due to injury in the dime defense in 2020.
“Justin and James, both of them are out there competing every day”, Fitzpatrick said. “Both of them are hungry. Both of them worked really hard this offseason. They came back in great shape. They look good. I could tell that they studied the fundamentals, the playbook, the whole nine. It’s gonna be a tough competition for sure”.
It’s no surprise that the Steelers were unable to retain slot cornerback Mike Hilton. Hilton signed a four-year, $24 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. The deal includes a year-one cap hit of more than $5 million and pockets him $8 million in year one.
Even with multiple retirements in Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald, the financial burden of rote compliance with the salary cap was still there. Steven Nelson’s contract was easily the biggest ‘expendable’ contract hanging off the branch, so he was let go.
But you build depth not only to protect against injury, but also to build the bridge to the next player. You’re not going to re-sign everybody that you bring in—that is simply the financial reality of the salary cap—so you have to have guys who are ready to step up when their time comes.
The Steelers have given themselves some options, with Layne and Pierre being the most notable. They also added Arthur Maulet as a veteran free agent, while addressing the position through rookie signings in Tre Norwood, Shakur Brown, Mike Gilbert, and Lamont Wade, most of whom Pittsburgh added as free agents.
The bottom line is, somebody has to step up. Hilton is a guy who once stepped up. Nelson was a guy who once stepped up, while he was still in Kansas City. Few players are handed starting jobs from the word go. Even then, there is that hesitation over whether or not they can get the job done. There is ultimately only one way to find out. That is to let them do it.