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NFL Draft

3 Defensive Free Agents Steelers Should Target

  • The Draft Network
  • March 4, 2021
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The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the NFL's more challenging salary cap situations for 2021. With an aging roster headlined by 38-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers must continue to add pieces on both sides of the ball if they plan to compete in the AFC North for the foreseeable future. With Roethlisberger returning in 2021, Pittsburgh’s offense looks to undergo minor changes even with wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, running back James Connor, and offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva set to enter free agency; Pittsburgh simply doesn’t have the money.

Defensively, linebackers Avery Williamson and Bud Dupree seemed primed to sign elsewhere joining cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton on the free-agent market. Longtime general manager Kevin Colbert has his work cut out for him this spring with a total of 10 defenders currently without contracts.

Pittsburgh, currently sitting $11 million over the cap, seems on the outs for any of the headliners in this year’s class. However, with the completion of potential linear transactions, the Steelers could fit themselves in position for a few key names. Here are three potential defensive targets the Steelers could look to sign when free agency begins.

Jourdan Lewis, CB, Dallas Cowboys

Jourdan Lewis was a nice surprise out of Michigan in 2017, but his play with the Dallas Cowboys has fluctuated from year to year as the constant reshuffle in their secondary failed to establish any sense of continuity. Despite the obstacles, Lewis was still able to produce in a limited role. In 2020, he started in a career-high 13 games working primarily in the CB2 role opposite Trevon Diggs. With Hilton and Sutton both eligible to enter free agency, and Joe Haden and Steven Nelson in contract years, Pittsburgh must prioritize its secondary this offseason if it plans to return to the playoffs.

The 25-year old Lewis isn’t your typical CB1, but he would present an extremely team-friendly option who would offer excellent depth behind Haden and Nelson and could work both rotationally out wide, in the slot, or as a spot starter in case of injury. 

Adam Butler, DT, New England Patriots

Like Pittsburgh, New England runs a base 3-4 scheme that opts for lighter, more agile 0-technique nose tackles. Butler has the ability to work at both nose and at defensive end with excellent feet and elite pass-rush skills that have largely gone unnoticed due to his role as a rotational piece for head coach Bill Belichick. 

Tyson Alualu’s impending free agency now leaves Pittsburgh with a massive hole to fill within the nucleus of its defensive line. Although Kawaan Short, formerly with the Carolina Panthers, would be the ideal addition, money talks; and Pittsburgh flat out can’t afford Short. Instead, the Steelers could opt for Butler, who’s missed just one game in four seasons, totaling 15 sacks in just 12 starts. 

Ryan Kerrigan, EDGE, Washington Football Team

Ok, so Pittsburgh missed out on the J.J. Watt sweepstakes. Why not dip into potentially the next best thing from the veteran pass-rush jar in Ryan Kerrigan, who offers a similar presence with elite production as an edge rusher? He isn’t Watt, but he would offer Keith Butler’s defense an added vet with the tools necessary to pin his ears back and get after the opposing quarterback. Washington’s franchise leader in sacks looks to be on his way out of D.C. following an influx of youth within the team’s defensive line highlighted by 2020 second-overall selection Chase Young. There are only so many snaps to go around, and Kerrigan found himself as a rotational piece in 2020, which led to much of his chagrin toward defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. 

Although Pittsburgh runs out of a base 3-4, if linebacker T.J. Watt stays healthy, Kerrigan would be a nice plug and play option opposite him—or behind him as a starter or as a rotational piece who wouldn’t be required to play on first and second down as he did in Washington. While Kerrigan is a typical left defensive end—where T.J. Watt plays—he moved around the line in Washington and could move to right defensive end with an offseason of work. 

Butler’s defense is predicated on wreaking havoc in the backfield, and Kerrigan would offer experienced savvy to one of the NFL’s top pass-rushing units. Despite his limited work in Washington this past season, he still managed 5.5 sacks, which was third among all Washington defenders. Kerrigan’s addition as a rotational rusher, or starter, could prove well worth the value for a team that consistently looks to add juice off the edge. 

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