As the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers figure to be raided in free agency. It’s just a fact of life in today’s NFL.
The Steelers have 13 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the signing period opens Feb. 27. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the Steelers position-by-position as they head into the period and what direction they may go.
Today: The defensive backs
For years, the Steelers’ cornerbacks were considered the weak point of their defense. But in 2008, the Steelers led the NFL in passing yards allowed, in part due to an improved pass rush, in part because of improved cornerback play.
Fourth-year cornerback Bryant McFadden was part of that improved play.
After pushing veteran Deshea Townsend to the bench, McFadden teamed with Ike Taylor to give the Steelers a pair of big corners able to handle the larger receivers who dot the rosters of NFL teams.
They are both also physical enough to hold up in run support, a must in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. Pure cover corners need not apply.
But the 6-0, 190-pound McFadden is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent Feb. 27 and it appears the 2005 second-round draft pick will hit the open market, leaving the Steelers down a cornerback.
The 5-10, 190-pound Townsend has never been the fastest cornerback, instead getting by on his excellent football IQ. But he’ll be 34 in September and struggled with heel and hamstring injuries in 2008. The Steelers would prefer to limit his play as a nickel back.
In his second NFL season, William Gay stepped in when McFadden was out with a broken forearm and Townsend went down with a hamstring problem and performed well.
Like Townsend, the 5-10, 190-pound Gay doesn’t have great straight-line speed, but is cagey. If McFadden leaves, he and Townsend will likely battle for the starting spot opposite Taylor – unless the Steelers use a high draft pick on a cornerback or jump into the free agent market.
Third-year player Anthony Madison is a restricted free agent. Though he’s listed as a cornerback, he’s strictly a special teams ace and should be back.
Veteran Fernando Bryant, signed to help out when McFadden and Townsend were out, is an unrestricted free agent. The Steelers could bring 10-year veteran back, but it would strictly be to add depth.
At safety, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark provide one of the best combinations of coverage and hitting ability in the league.
Tyrone Carter is a solid veteran backup, though his lack of size is exposed if he sees to much playing time.
Fourth safety Anthony Smith is a restricted free agent and the Steelers will likely make him a tender offer, though it wouldn’t break their hearts if he signed elsewhere. The former third-round pick has fallen out of favor with head coach Mike Tomlin.
Safety won’t be a huge need in the offseason as the team expects Ryan Mundy, a sixth-round pick in 2008, to push for a roster spot in 2009 after getting injured in the preseason and spending time on the practice squad.
If the Steelers do delve into the free agent market at the cornerback position, they won’t make a big bang as some teams have already done, locking up some of their own players.
The Steelers’ problem – or good fortune – is that they signed Polamalu to a four-year, $30-million extension in 2007. They can’t pay a player in their secondary more than Polamalu – which is where the cornerback market this offseason has quickly headed.
That will take them out of the market for the likes of Chris McAlister, who was released by Baltimore, or Dre’ Bly of Denver, the top unsigned cornerbacks after Oakland gave Nnamdi Asomugha a ridiculous contract and Houston slapped the franchise tag on Dunta Robinson.
The Steelers could take a look at former Cleveland cornerback Leigh Bodden, who was released after just one season in Detroit. The former Duquesne star his good size at 6-1, 193 pounds, and is no stranger to what’s asked as of a cornerback in a 3-4 defense.
Tennessee’s Chris Carr has pretty good cornerback skills and is also an excellent return man. The Steelers could kill two bids with one stone by signing him. He owns two career interceptions – including a 100-yard interception and return for a score against the Steelers in 2006 – and has also averaged a solid 24.7 yards per kickoff and 7.1 per punt return in his four NFL seasons.
Oakland’s Justin Miller has had injury problems but was a premiere return man before the injuries sidetracked his career. If he’s healthy, the former New York Jets first-round draft pick could be worth a look.
Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.