After years of searching, the Pittsburgh Steelers finally found a pair of reliable, quality cornerbacks.
It hasn’t come, though, without a price.
Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are due to account for about $30 million in salary-cap space in 2021. That’s roughly a sixth of the team’s total cap. No cornerback duo in the league is signed for more for this coming season for more. There are only five other teams that have more cap space devoted to an entire cornerback position group of up to 10 players than the Steelers do to Haden and Nelson.
The Steelers have a path to address the $15.6 million and $14.4 million hits of Haden and Nelson, respectively, through contract extensions for either or both. But the situation complicates their ability to hold on to their Nos. 3 and 4 cornerbacks.
Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton are younger and, at least measured by Pro Football Focus grades, have been just as good or better than Nelson and Haden (albeit in lesser roles). But Hilton and Sutton are on the cusp of unrestricted free agency. With the Steelers close to the overall cap ceiling and so much invested at cornerback, there is no clear path to bringing Hilton or Sutton back.
While Nelson and Haden held down the outside cornerback spots when healthy, Hilton has spent the past four seasons as among the NFL’s best slot cornerbacks, particularly against the run. The 5-foot-9 Hilton also excels in pass-rush situations and in tackling.
Sutton was the Steelers’ Mr. Everything in recent years, capably deployed as the top backup to all three of the others. And when Haden, Nelson and Hilton were healthy, Sutton was a strong hybrid dime player in subpackages.
The Steelers have no obvious in-house replacements for Hilton or Sutton. Justin Layne, a 2019 third-round pick, earned some playing time while dressing for every game in 2020, but he didn’t show enough for the Steelers to hand him a job as a starting outside corner.
Layne even ceded his spot as the team’s No. 5 cornerback late in the season to undrafted rookie James Pierre Jersey. The 6-2 Pierre has the size, length and physicality the Steelers covet at cornerback, and after a year of development is a sneaky candidate for an increased role. But he, too, is not ready to be a starter.
Former Penn State cornerback Trevor Williams joined 2019 seventh-round Chicago Bears pick Stephen Denmark as reserve/future signings last month. While each has the ability to make the team, expect the Steelers to add youth to the position in the draft and perhaps a low-cost free agent to replace Hilton and/or Sutton if neither is brought back.
Offseason outlook: Cornerbacks
Joe Haden Jersey, 1 year left on contract, $15.58 million cap hit for 2021
Steven Nelson Jersey, 1 year left on contract, $14.4 million cap hit for 2021
Justin Layne Jersey, 2 years left on contract, $1.08 million cap hit for 2021
James Pierre, 2 years left on contract, $783,000 cap hit for 2021
Also under contract
Trevor Williams, 1 year left on contract, $990,000 cap hit for 2021
Stephen Denmark, 1 year left on contract, $850,000 cap hit for 2021
Mike Hilton Jersey, Unrestricted, $3.26 million cap hit in 2020
Cameron Sutton Jersey, Unrestricted, $1 million cap hit in 2020