Blueprint on How to Rebuild a Defense: Don’t Half-Ass Free Agency

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By G.Stryker

In 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers had some major needs on defense. Middle linebacker, cornerback, and safety to name a few. Mike Mitchell came off a terrible year at free safety, and was let go. Ryan Shazier was lost with a spinal injury and no one knew if he would even walk again. Joe Haden enjoyed a good first season, but the other cornerback spot was still in flux. So the Steelers waited until free agency to get their middle linebacker, Jon Bostic, safety, Morgan Burnett, and Nat Berhe to help on special teams and provide some depth in the secondary. Steeler Nation rejoiced that the holes were filled. The only problem is that they were filled with guys, not players. Bostic was signed to a 2-year $4M contract at $2M per season. Burnett signed to a 3-year $14.5M contract that carried a $1M salary and $4.25M signing bonus. His cap hit was $2.4M. Berhe was a cheap $790k option and being a veteran, only counted $630k against the cap. So if you look at the one year value of these 3 players, you see these guys clearly aren’t being paid to be starters.  

As a result, the Steelers added safeties, Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen in the draft, but the Steelers never really addressed their needs at inside linebacker or cornerback. As a result, 2018 was a frustrating year for the defense, as the middle linebackers struggled in coverage, and rookie Edmunds was thrust into the starting role as Burnett dealt with groin issues all season. Berhe fared far worse as he was lost for the season in week 4 with a torn pectoral. The 2018 defensive season was lost to poor free agent pickups and not addressing needs in the draft. 

One year later, all three of the previous year’s defensive pickups were let go, so the Steelers were again, back at square one with needs at middle linebacker and cornerback. Since Antonio Brown chose to make a spectacle of himself to get released, the Steelers had a boon of money left over to sign some quality free agents. Mark Barron was signed to help the inside linebackers on a 2-year $12M salary at $6M a year, and probably the best move of free agency, netting cornerback, Steven Nelson on a 3-year $25M contract averaging $8.3M a season. The Steelers tripled the value of those two free agent pickups from 2018 to 2019, and the defense reaped dividends. Mark provided great depth while Nelson played as a lockdown corner on the other side of Joe Haden.  

Moving up in the draft to grab ILB Devin Bush, sealed that position of need with a quality young player. Only after Sean Davis was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, did the Steelers look to make a trade for safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick.  And so the Steeler defensive rebuild was complete. They finished in the top 5 statistically while leading the league in takeaways and sacks. Only a competent offense stopped this team from being a playoff team this season.  

The groundwork is set. The Steeler defense is reborn: athletic and fast. GM Kevin Colbert has learned his lesson, struck while the iron was hot, and didn’t half-ass free agency.  


Which new player do you think had the biggest impact on defense this past year?  Let us know in the comment section below!


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