Free Agent Focus: Defensive Backs

With February here, it's time to begin talking about who could be available when the free agency period begins in March.

Free Agent Focus:
Wide Receivers
Here's the second in a series about the free agent market as it pertains to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Today: Defensive backs

Remember back when you used to lament the fact the Steelers kept guys such as Chidi Iwuoma around just because they were solid special teams players?

Doesn't seem like such folly now, does it.

Pittsburgh's special teams coverage units were a serious Achilles heal during the 2007 season and you'd better believe the team will search the waiver wire looking for players who could possibly upgrade them if not also providing some extra pop in their own return game.

Remember, much like the wide receiver market, the Steelers won't got looking for starting help. They have plenty of competition at those positions, assuming, of course, that free safety Ryan Clark recovers from having his spleen removed during the season.

So instead of looking at starter-quality players, the focus has to be on guys who are special teams aces.

Baltimore cornerback/return man B.J. Sams would provide an immediate upgrade over Allen Rossum in the Steelers' return game, giving them somebody capable of taking it the distance on any play.

Sams played in just one game in 2007, suffering a torn ACL in the opener against Cincinnati. That provided the Ravens the opening they needed to get Yamon Figures into that role, but the fact that Figures was unable to beat out Sams coming out of camp shows you how good Sams is.

Sams should be fully recovered from the ACL tear this offseason and that injury could help keep his asking price down.

He owns a 22.9 career average on kick returns, including 25.7 per return in 2006, while also averaging a solid 10.9 yards per punt in his career, including 12.2 yards per attempt in 2005.

If the Steelers are looking for the next Iwuoma, Buffalo safety Jim Leonhard could be the man.

Undersized at 5-8, 185 pounds, the free safety makes up for his lack of stature with a strong desire needed to play special teams, starring in that role for Buffalo.

He did make six starts for the injury-riddled Bills this season, recording 54 tackles and picking off a pair of passes.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin may also look at somebody who seems to be something of a favorite of his, Minnesota's Ronyell Whitaker.

Whitaker originally made Tampa Bay's roster in 2003 as an undrafted rookie out of Virginia Tech, where his position coach was Tomlin.

He spent the 2004 season on the team's practice squad and was released in 2005.

But when Tomlin became Minnesota's defensive coordinator in 2006, the team signed, yep, you guessed it, Whitaker and he finished second on the team with 17 special teams tackles after leading NFL Europe in interceptions and defensive touchdowns earlier that spring.

Whitaker was again a special teams ace for the Vikings in 2007 and could be in the Steelers plans this year.

Finally, the Steelers could take a look at Houston's Roc Alexander, who, like Sams, was injured in 2007, likely lowering his value.

Alexander spent the 2007 season on IR with a knee injury, but the 5-10, 180-pounder was a solid as both a return man and on coverage units for the Texans before that. If he's healthy, he could help bolster both units.

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.

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