Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 16.
DeMarkus Acy, Joe Haden, Isaiah Johnson, Justin Layne, Arthur Maulet, James Pierre, Linden Stephens, Cameron Sutton, Ahkello Witherspoon
(Free Agent Scorecard: 4; 1 exclusive rights – DeMarkus Acy; 3 unrestricted – Joe Haden, Arthur Maulet, Ahkello Witherspoon)
A LAST LOOK AT 2021
In a nod to the way the game now is played at the professional level, the Steelers often will list five defensive backs – two safeties and three cornerbacks – among the starters. Based on that practice, heading into the 2021 season, the Steelers were looking at having to replace 67 percent of their starting cornerbacks. And both of those moves were necessitated by salary cap issues.
Mike Hilton, the starting nickel, entered free agency, and the Steelers were unable to get themselves into the high rent district he was soon to inhabit. When the Bengals came calling with a four-year proposal that carried a $24 million price tag, the Steelers were left with nothing to do except thank Hilton for his years of service and start planning on finding a replacement.
It was the same thing, but with a little bit of a different twist in the case of Steven Nelson, who had been signed as an unrestricted free agent during the 2019 offseason to be the starter opposite Joe Haden. Two years later, the Steelers found themselves in an either/or situation with respect to the two cornerbacks who had combined to play 3,818 defensive snaps during the 2019-20 regular seasons – 1,918 for Nelson and 1,900 for Haden. The team needed to make moves to get into compliance with the salary cap, and the arithmetic could support just one of their salaries. Once the Steelers decided to keep Haden, the chore became determining whether Cam Sutton would be a bigger help at outside cornerback opposite Haden or in the slot replacing Hilton, and then finding someone to plug into the spot where Sutton wasn't.
While James Pierre and Justin Layne were dueling for the outside spot, and DeMarkus Acy, Arthur Maulet, and Tre Norwood were auditioning for Hilton's old job – with Sutton there as the failsafe at one of the two positions – the Steelers made a move that may not have seemed like much at the time but would ultimately provide a partial solution to the issues created by the losses of Hilton and Nelson. Just before the start of the regular season, the Steelers sent a fifth-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft to Seattle for Ahkello Witherspoon, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound outside cornerback who was 26 years old and had 33 NFL starts during his four previous seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
It took Witherspoon a while to get himself up to speed when it came to the nuances of the defensive scheme, and because he wasn't a contributor on special teams he was inactive for eight of the first nine games he wore a Steelers uniform, but he came on to start three of the final eight regular season games. Playing exclusively outside cornerback, he finished with three interceptions and nine passes defensed, while opposing quarterbacks completed 37.8 percent with a rating of 35.1 while targeting receivers he was covering.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Since 2000, the only Steelers cornerbacks to have more than the three interceptions Witherspoon managed in 2021 were Chad Scott, with five in 2000 and four in 2001; Deshea Townsend with four in 2004; and Haden with five in 2019.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2022
It took the Steelers a while to figure out the answers to the questions free agency created at this position during the 2021 offseason, and it seems they could find themselves in a similar situation one year later.
Haden and Witherspoon, both of whom saw a lot of playing time down the stretch of the 2021 season, plus Maulet, who logged 379 snaps thanks to a variety of roles within the sub-package defenses, all are on track to become unrestricted free agents on March 16.
One year ago, the Steelers prioritized re-signing Sutton, and it has to be comforting to have him under contract for 2022 knowing that he can fill holes that might appear either outside or in the slot. General Manager Kevin Colbert also listed cornerback as one of the positions he believes is a deep one in this draft class.
The rest of it, in terms of jobs or roles for the returning players, will have to be worked out on the field. Among some of the issues to be resolved there will be whether Justin Layne can become more than a core special teams player, whether James Pierre can avoid that troublesome characteristic of getting beat for big plays down the field, whether Linden Stephens and/or Isaiah Johnson can find ways to contribute to a position that figures to need contributions from anywhere it might be able to get them.
There are areas of their roster beyond the offensive line and quarterback that the Steelers will need to address this offseason, and cornerback is one of those that should not be overlooked or ignored.