Steelers GM: Defense-heavy draft affected free agency approach

| Sunday, March 20, 2016, 8:30 p.m.

BOCA RATON, Fla. — The Steelers need a cornerback … or two.

While on the topic, they could use a defensive end, a nose tackle, another inside linebacker and a safety, too.

Instead, through the first two weeks of free agency, the Steelers prioritized the most stable part of their team: the offense.

Turns out, there is a method to their madness: Address the offense in free agency and hammer the defense in the draft.

Speaking to a small group of reporters Sunday at the NFL's annual meeting at the Boca Raton Resort and Club, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said a deep defensive draft has affected the way the team has approached free agency.

“The philosophy this offseason was, we tried to address whatever offensive needs we had through free agency because it still looks like it's a defensive draft,” Colbert said.

The Steelers are sticking to that plan.

Their only signings since free agency opened March 9 were on offense with tight end Ladarius Green and tackle Ryan Harris. Before that, they locked up a couple of their own free agents in guard Ramon Foster and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

The Steelers prioritized keeping veteran cornerback William Gay and signed him to a team-friendly, three-year deal. They also brought back safety Robert Golden, but he's hardly a shoo-in to be the opening-day starter next to Mike Mitchell.

The defense was much improved in defensive coordinator Keith Butler's first year but still struggled at times, especially in the secondary. The Steelers finished almost last in the league against the pass.

With immediate, affordable help leaning more toward offense in free agency, the Steelers decided against pursuing anybody of significance, thus relying on the influx of defensive talent in the draft.

Colbert said it typically doesn't work out that way.

“You really put it together at the same time,” Colbert said. “Once all the juniors declared, we got our evaluations on them. That was happening at the same time we were putting free agency groups together. So you could see where the two could mesh and how we could hopefully best address what we wanted to get accomplished in the offseason. That was more evident if we did anything free agency-wise, it probably was going to be on offense because we should be able to draft some good players on the defensive side.”

The Steelers pick 25th in April's draft, where it is almost a sure thing they will address the defense at one of three positions: pass rusher, safety or cornerback.

Even though the Steelers never have selected a cornerback in the first round in Colbert's 16 drafts, that might change this year.

The Steelers have only Mitchell, Gay, Ross Cockrell and Cortez Allen with any experience on the roster in the secondary. Cockrell was a Buffalo castoff last year, and the Steelers can't go into the preseason relying on Allen regaining the form that earned him a $25 million contract two years ago.

The Steelers have two young players they drafted last year in Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, but the two combined for one defensive snap last year. Golson missed the season with a shoulder injury, and Grant was cut out of training camp before spending a good portion of the season on the practice squad.

With the four top cornerbacks in free agency this year signing for close to $7 million per season and with two of them being 32 years old, Colbert couldn't rationalize spending that kind of money on something that isn't a sure thing.

“You have to be careful about what the market is,” Colbert said. “You respect where it is because it's real. You see the numbers come in. Can we make it work? Not really in our situation this year, especially when you know you are going to have options.”

Those options are going to come in the draft.

Colbert admitted to “tracking the top cornerbacks” at their pro days (Clemson and Ohio State), including heading to Houston later in the week to watch William Jackson, but that doesn't necessarily mean a cornerback is a sure thing the first day of the draft.

“I can't say we will take a cornerback in the first, second or third round, but there's enough cornerbacks where we should be able to add somewhere along the line, and a good one,” Colbert said. “But you have to measure that against putting, say $10 million, into a starting-caliber cornerback that you really don't know. You don't know the draft kids either, but there's a lot less of a risk from a cap and financial standpoint to draft and develop your own. So we are more comfortable with doing that.”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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