The dust is beginning to settle one week into the NFL free agency period and we can begin to see things with a little more clarity.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, as has typically been the case, haven’t been major players. There have been some flirtations, most notably with New England inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and they did sign wide receiver Justin Hunter, to a one-year, bargain-basement deal.
Even though there has been over $500 million in new contracts doled out by NFL teams, there are still some quality players remaining on the free agent market. Here are some players the Steelers still could make a run at:
Sterling Moore, CB, New Orleans: The 5-10 Moore is never going to be a star but he’s a very capable slot cornerback. He’s also coming off a season in which he set career highs for tackles (56), pass defenses (13) and matched his career high with two interceptions last season in New Orleans. Moore just turned 27, so he’s still young enough to continue to show improvement despite the fact New Orleans was his sixth NFL team in six seasons. Moore is a guy you’re constantly looking to replace but when you look at the end of the season, he found a way to get the job done. And he would be an improvement over William Gay in the slot, allowing Gay to make his long-awaited move to safety.
DeShawn Shead, CB, Seattle: The Seahawks declined to tender an offer to the 6-2, 212-pound Shead as a restricted free agent, making him unrestricted. The Steelers brought in Davon House for a visit but he decided to take a one-year deal to return to Green Bay. Pittsburgh is obviously looking for an upgrade over Ross Cockrell and/or Gay. Shead is a physical presence at the cornerback position as his 81 tackles last season would suggest. He had just one interception last season but did have 14 pass defenses. He’s also forced four fumbles the past two seasons. There is some fear that he was a product of Seattle’s system, but he’s a solid No. 2 corner.
Leon Hall, CB, N.Y. Giants: Hall has always been a very good slot corner, though at 32, you do have to wonder how much he has left in the tank? Still, in 12 games for the Giants last season, Hall recorded 31 tackles, two sacks and an interception. A one-year deal for the former Bengals star, who now has 27 career interceptions, to compete with Gay might not be a bad thing. Hall, like Gay, also could fill a role as a backup safety. With Morris Claiborne and Brandon Flowers signing with the Jets and Ravens Thursday, a player with the pedigree of Hall could be a bargain.
Players missing the cut in the defensive backfield: Darrelle Revis, who still thinks he’s the Revis of 2010, Lardarius Webb, who’s looking for a starting job as a safety, and Green Bay corner Sam Snead, who’s had serious concussion issues.
Zach Brown, ILB, Buffalo: Despite recording at least 77 tackles in each of his three healthy seasons in Tennessee - and six interceptions and 10 sacks - Brown was forced to sign a one-year prove it deal worth just $1.5 million last season with the Bills. He did just that, recording 149 tackles, four sacks and an interception with the Bills. Now, he’ll be looking to get paid. And he’s got some suitors in Oakland and Indianapolis, but he shouldn’t be asking for Hightower money. He’s also played in the 3-4 in Tennessee, so the learning curve wouldn’t be great.
Sean Spence, ILB, Tennessee: The Steelers haven’t been afraid of bringing back their own guys in free agency and Spence would be a nice fit as a backup or even rotational linebacker with Vince Williams. And given Ryan Shazier’s injury history, improving the depth at inside linebacker - or at least the battle for depth - could be key. But, would Spence return without the promise of a starting spot? The longer free agency goes, the more likely that becomes. Spence has visited with the Colts, but Indianapolis has met with several inside linebackers.
Jelani Jenkins, LB, Miami: Jenkins played on the outside for Miami, but the 6-0, 240-pounder might have been miscast. He’d be better served playing inside in a 3-4 and the Steelers would offer a good fit. He’s decent in coverage and can get to the ball. Jenkins would provide solid competition to Williams while also giving the Steelers another starter-experienced body on the inside as Shazier insurance.
DeAnde Levy, LB, Detroit: Hip, knee and quad injuries have killed Levy the past two seasons, leading the Lions to release him. But he was outstanding in coverage before those issues, recording six interceptions and 15 pass defenses in 2013. Does he still have it? A one-year, prove-it deal for a player looking to win would be in line. This is a guy who signed a 4-year, $33-million dollar contract a couple of years ago, who’s also active in the community.
Rob Ninkovich, LB, New England: The Steelers missed out on Hightower but they could still pry another piece away from the Patriots. Ninkovich is 33 but still got to the quarterback four times in 12 games last season after returning from the PED suspension and arm injury. From 2011 through 2015, he had at least 6.5 sacks each year, getting to the quarterback 37 times over that period. He’d make an interesting pairing with 38-year-old James Harrison, giving the Steelers over 70 years worth of experienced, yet productive, linebacker.
Tyson Alualu, DE, Jacksonville: Alualu never lived up to his lofty draft status - Jacksonville took him in the first round in 2010 - but after spending seven losing seasons with the Jaguars, the 29-year-old could be looking to win. He’s been very durable and has 17.5 sacks in his career, mostly from the inside. He could be a nice cheap option as a player capable of playing both end and nose in a pinch.
Fozzy Whittaker, RB, Carolina: The Steelers are likely going to go the rookie route as a way to back up Le’Veon Bell, but Whittaker would give them a player to compete with Fitzgerald Toussaint who also has some starting experience. Whittaker has averaged 4.2 yards per carry over the course of his career and also has caught 63 passes in limited duty. Oh yeah, he also has averaged nearly 23 yards on kick returns and since we know the Steelers like to keep a running back deep as their secondary return man, that’s important. Whittaker also had five tackles on teams last season. He’s no Rex Burkhead, but he’s not bad.
Jonathan Grimes, RB, Houston: He’s a William & Mary man. He’s also been somewhat productive when used, averaging 4.4 yards per carry over his career and catching 39 passes the past two seasons. Grimes also had eight special teams tackles last season in just 10 games. Again, veteran competition for Toussaint.