Free Agents Steelers Should Pursue After 2021 NFL Draft

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2021

Free Agents Steelers Should Pursue After 2021 NFL Draft

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers were relatively quiet on the free-agent market leading up to an NFL draft in which they made nine selections.

    Dealing with the realities of a lowered salary cap and several key free agents ready to hit the market, the Steelers had to make some tough decisions in terms of who to keep. Bud Dupree is off to Tennessee, Alejandro Villanueva is now a Baltimore Raven, and Steven Nelson still hasn't found a home. 

    But the dust has settled on the draft, and the hard work of creating some cap space has been done. The Steelers are sitting at $10 million worth of space, per Spotrac

    The crop of rookies will certainly help the roster transition beyond 2021. But there are still roles on the roster that need to be addressed, and some useful players on the market could be had on the cheap. 

    As general manager Kevin Colbert continues to mold the roster heading into the summer, here are a few free agents who could help. 

OT Charles Leno Jr.

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    David Berding/Associated Press

    The most obvious spot the Steelers should be looking at is offensive tackle. Fortunately for them, this is the year to find a veteran on the cheap. The tackle market is pretty full of older protectors looking for the right opportunity, including Mitchell Schwartz, Russell Okung and Bobby Massie. 

    But Charles Leno Jr. might be the best bet among them. 

    Unlike many of the tackles available, Leno isn't coming off a major injury. He played all 16 games for the Bears in each of the last six seasons. He isn't playing poorly, either. He earned a 74.6 grade from Pro Football Focus. For comparison, Chukwuma Okorafor earned a 57.5 last season. 

    At this point, Okorafor is slotted in at left tackle next season while Zach Banner—who is coming off knee surgery last season—will likely play right tackle. 

    Leno Jr. would offer a veteran, reliable option who can push both of the young players or fill in as a swing tackle while trying to earn a bigger contract in 2022. 

CB Brian Poole

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The cornerback room is going to look different in Pittsburgh. With the departures of Steven Nelson (88.1 percent of defensive snaps last year, per Pro Football Reference) and Mike Hilton (45 percent), there is going to be playing time up for grabs. 

    Cameron Sutton's role should change. He played quite a bit in the slot last season but will likely go to the outside with the loss of Nelson. Hilton was another option in the slot, but he is off to Cincinnati

    That leaves undrafted free agents Shakur Brown and Lamont Wade or free-agent signing Arthur Maulet. 

    Maulet played 36 percent of the Jets' snaps last year. The Steelers could also sign Brian Poole, who played at a high level on 42 percent of their snaps despite playing in just nine games. 

    Poole excelled in the slot and held opposing passers to a 61.6 passer rating last season. He would bring certainty to the position and free up Minkah Fitzpatrick to play all over the defense. 

Edge Ryan Kerrigan

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    Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press

    With the addition of Chase Young in Washington, Ryan Kerrigan was out of the starting lineup for the first time in his career. He responded with 5.5 sacks while playing just 38 percent of the snaps and helping mentor Young and Montez Sweat. 

    The Steelers don't need a mentor for T.J. Watt, but Alex Highsmith and Cassius Marsh are the best options at outside linebacker outside of Watt. Both could learn from working with Kerrigan. 

    Kerrigan will be 33 when the season starts. At this point, he isn't a solution as a starter. But he did nothing to show that he can't continue to be a valuable member of the defense. 

    Highsmith is going to need to be ready to fill the gap left behind Bud Dupree. Now it's his turn to take over that role. Adding a veteran like Kerrigan who can provide some depth and steady production would help ensure the Steelers pass-rush doesn't skip a beat in 2021.