NFL from the Sidelines

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O-R Sports reporter Dale Lolley gets you the insider scoop on the NFL.

After hobnobbing around the NFL in the press boxes and sidelines, sports reporter Dale Lolley will let you know the insider scoop. Dale can also be heard on the Steelers radio network pre-game show prior to every game. Follow him on Twitter at dlolleyor.

Steelers’ look ahead: defensive backfield

January 22, 2016
Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson (22), right, celebrates after scoring during the second half in an NFL football divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

By now you’ve started reading the season wrap ups for the Steelers done by everyone else out there. I’m not saying those others are right or wrong. Some of them do fine work.

But I’ve also seen a preponderance of people writing stuff about the Steelers moving forward who apparently have no idea of how this team typically does business.

The Steelers will take care of their own guys first. And even if they do dip into free agency – and they do have some cash to do so this year – they’re not going to upset the applecart in their locker room. What does that mean? They’re not going to pay a free agency – any free agent – more than, for example, what Antonio Brown is making.

Why? That makes for a contentious locker room. Every player knows what others are making. It’s readily available. One of the big reasons pointed to for the success of this current team is the closeness that it had.

Bringing in one or two new guys and paying them as much or more than your established stars could ruin that chemistry.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the Steelers’ defensive backfield:

Guys under contract-FS Mike Mitchell; CB Cortez Allen, CB Senquez Golson; CB Ross Cockrell; S Shamarko Thomas; S Ross Ventrone; CB Doran Grant.

Yeah, not a lot here. And if the Steelers are going to make a splash at all in free agency, this will be the area in which they will do so. Mitchell had a solid season in his second year with the team, while the only others on this list are likely to be released – Allen – or are special teamers. Grant will likely get moved to safety. One source told me Grant just doesn’t have the top-end speed to play cornerback in the NFL, though he does have good ball skills. Is he a future strong safety? Perhaps. Thomas was penciled in to start at strong safety last season and lost the job before the opener. Then he made several boneheaded plays on special teams. That didn’t help his cause. The team is banking on a big second season from Golson, its 2015 second-round draft pick who missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. The team just signed Cockreel, an exclusive rights free agent, on Friday, locking up at least one of their corners who saw a decent amount of playing time. Right now, Cockrell would have to be penciled in as a starter moving forward. The former fourth-round draft pick of the Bills showed an eye for the ball last season and is a smart guy. He should only get better moving forward.

Free agents-SS Will Allen; CB William Gay; CB Antwon Blake; CB Brandon Boykin; S Robert Golden.

Obviously, there are a lot of guys here who played a lot of snaps for the Steelers in 2015. But considering the team finished 30th in the league in pass defense, that’s not altogether a good thing. The Steelers had to talk Allen out of retiring after 2014, so the guess here is that he likely does so this year, though there’s a chance they bring him back with the idea that he’ll be the backup at both safety spots. The Steelers also would like to have Gay back. And if he re-signs, it could be with the idea that he plays corner for another year or so, then transitions to safety. Blake is a good special teams player. He was overexposed as a cornerback this season, however. He is young enough that he could still be improving. Remember, this was technically really just his second season of playing cornerback in the NFL. I know many fans acted as if Boykin was the second coming of Rod Woodson and Mel Blount, but the Steelers still view him strictly as a nickel corner. That’s where they would like to play Gay, so they’re unlikely to go out of their way to re-sign Boykin. I would expect the team to make a run at bringing Golden back, as well, giving him a shot to start at strong safety, though not handing him the job. He’s a core special teams player and is good in the locker room.

FA targets: It’s early and there will be some guys who are salary cap casualties, and the Steelers don’t typically look at outside free agents going into their third contract.

I would take a strong look at Cincinnati strong safety George Iloka, who’s still just 25. Tampa Bay CB Sterling Moore, who is still just 25 and has five NFL seasons under his belt, also would interest me, as would Green Bay’s Casey Hayward and Jeremy Lane of Seattle.

Dale Lolley

After hobnobbing around the NFL in the press boxes and sidelines, sports reporter Dale Lolley will let you know the insider scoop. Dale can also be heard on the Steelers radio network pre-game show prior to every game. Follow him on Twitter at dlolleyor.

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