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The defense that led the NFL in sacks (56) and interceptions (18) and finished third in overall defense in 2020 saw outside linebacker Bud Dupree (Tennessee Titans) and nose tackle Tyson Alualu (Jacksonville Jaguars) leave in free agency and inside linebacker Vince Williams get cut to create additional cap space.
Throw in the departure of nickelback Mike Hilton to the Cincinnati Bengals, and four of their top 12 players from a defense they hoped not to disrupt are gone. And there are likely more to come on offense.
Here is a look at the right decisions, the wrong ones and ones that were unavoidable after two days of free agency.
Cam Sutton over Mike Hilton: Right decision
The decision to re-sign Sutton — only the second drafted cornerback to receive a second contract under Mike Tomlin – and let Hilton walk in free agency was the logical move to make.
Sutton’s versatility (he can play every cornerback position in the defense) and his intelligence on the field was deemed more worthy than signing Hilton.
The Steelers have never given a Hilton anything more than a one-year contract since signing him as an undrafted free agent in 2016 for this reason: They thought he was a solid, disruptive player along the line of scrimmage (especially for his size), but he had major problems in coverage (because of his size).
Hilton fit well as a blitzer in the Steelers’ fire-zone schemes, but he was limited where he could play on the field. The wrong system could be the wrong fit for Hilton.
Matt Feiler: Wrong decision
The biggest mistake so far was letting Feiler get away to the Los Angeles Chargers for a three-year, $21 million deal that really isn’t that much for a quality right tackle. And that’s what Feiler is — a right tackle, not a guard.
The Steelers made the mistake of moving Feiler to left guard last season after he started 26 games at right tackle. Now they have compounded the mistake by letting the best tackle on their roster sign elsewhere. His departure ensures the Steelers will have to find one high in the draft, though they probably were going to do that anyway.
Chuks Okorafor proved himself to be more than capable replacement at right tackle last season. In fact, he might have been their most consistent lineman. Re-signing Zach Banner was a no-brainer, but he has played only three quarters as a starting right tackle.
Vince Williams: Right decision
The release of inside linebacker Williams, 31, who started 69 games in eight seasons and was one of the best run defenders, appears to be a salary-cap move because it saves the Steelers $4 million this season. What is not known is if the Steelers told Williams he had to take a pay cut or be released, similar to what they did with James Harrison in 2013.
The move is somewhat understandable from this aspect: Williams is a one-dimensional player — a terrific run-stuffer who is a liability in coverage.
But the problem is there is no quality depth to replace him. The logical choice right now is Robert Spillane, who started seven games in Devin Bush’s absence last season. The only other inside backers on the roster with any amount of experience are Ulysees Gilbert III and Marcus Allen, but they are not suited for Williams’ role as a run-stuffer. The move could clear the way for the Steelers to re-sign Avery Williamson.
Tyson Alualu: Wrong decision
Already thin on the defensive line and with little, if any, quality depth, losing Alualu for a minimal contract (two years, $6 million) to the Jaguars appears to make little sense, financially or otherwise. Granted, there might be a reason Alualu wanted to return to the team that drafted him in the first round in 2010, but the money he is receiving from the Jaguars is only slightly more than the $2.75 million salary he received last season.
Alualu is viewed as the best run defender among the defensive linemen, a nose tackle who plays with strength and leverage and is hard to move. His absence, coupled with the release of Williams, means the Steelers lost their two best run stoppers in the middle of a defense that ranked 11th against the run last season.
What’s more, there is no proven replacement on the roster. The only real possibility is Carlos Davis, last year’s seventh-round pick whom the coaches like because he is strong, works hard and moves well for his size. Another option is Isaiah Buggs, who was passed on the depth chart last season because of his conditioning.
Bud Dupree: Right decision
Losing Dupree, who formed the best edge-rushing duo in the league with T.J. Watt, was a foregone conclusion, something over which the Steelers really had no control.
With a flattened salary cap that is nearly $16 million below last season, the Steelers could not place the franchise tag on Dupree again, something that was a possibility under normal financial conditions.
And with a big multi-year contract earmarked for Watt at the end of the 2021 season, the Steelers were not in position to throw the type of money at Dupree that he received from the Titans (an average of $16.5 million over five years). Dupree knew it, the Steelers knew it. That’s why they drafted Alex Highsmith in the second round last season, knowing he would eventually have to replace Dupree.
The Steelers didn’t want to lose Dupree; they just knew it was inevitable. The same can’t be said for some of the other moves.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.
First Published March 16, 2021, 11:40pm
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