Tim Benz: New Steelers already pressed for jobs they were just hired for
Welcome to town.
Now go fight for the job opening you just thought you were hired to fill.
That is the message being sent by the Steelers to each of their three significant free-agent signees this offseason.
Inside linebacker Mark Barron, formerly of the Rams, inked a two-year, $12 million contract in March. Donte Moncrief’s deal was $9 million over two years after he bolted from Jacksonville. And Steven Nelson came on board for $25.5 million over three years to leave Kansas City.
After signing that trio to play linebacker, receiver and cornerback, respectively, general manager Kevin Colbert then proceeded to use his first three draft choices on Devin Bush, Diontae Johnson and Justin Layne to play — you guessed it — inside linebacker, wide receiver and cornerback.
The Steelers normally are loath to spend in free agency. To do so to the tune of $46.5 million dollars among three players, only then to replicate their positions in the draft, may seem odd.
That’s especially true when you consider free agency and draft capital was spent on inside linebacker and receiver a year ago in Jon Bostic and James Washington.
But those two added less than the Steelers hoped. In fact, Bostic already is gone from the inside linebacker depth chart, as is L.J. Fort. He went to Philadelphia in free agency.
When it comes to pass options downfield for Ben Roethlisberger, Washington’s failure to emerge as a weapon last season is compounded by Antonio Brown’s trade to Oakland.
So there’s room for multiple players at these positions. But are there enough snaps to go around to make these free agents feel they made the right choice?
Did they see the ranks being thin enough here to fit in, even if the Steelers used picks on bodies at their spots?
“It’s not surprising,” Barron said at the Steelers’ first OTA on Tuesday. “It’s a need they were looking to fill. I’m not surprised about it. I’m excited about the situation. (Bush) is a great young talent. I’m always excited to play with great young players.”
Nelson appears to have the least to worry about. And he appears to know it.
“If you pay a guy, you don’t want him sit the bench, right?” Nelson asked. “I’m not afraid of competition. I’ve been doing that my whole career.”
It’s not just money with Nelson. His competition appears to be the lightest from the draft choices. Layne is perceived to be a bit of a project since he was converted from wide receiver while at Michigan State.
Unless Nelson really stinks in the preseason, he has an excellent chance of starting at the cornerback position opposite of Joe Haden.
“It’s great to have somebody in the room like that, 10 years in the league,” Nelson said of Haden. “It definitely helps elevate my game. I ask a lot of questions and see from a different perspective. You want to see how he sees things, through his eyes.”
Nelson would have to get injured or completely whiff on learning the playbook, and Artie Burns, Cam Sutton, Brian Allen or Mike Hilton would have to look like Mel Blount to make him a backup.
For Barron—who pointed out he did get the first snap of the “Seven Shots” goal line drill—and Moncrief, however, reps could become pinched by the presence of Bush and Johnson.
Given the efforts Kevin Colbert made to trade up for Bush, the presumption is the Steelers would like for him to start at inside linebacker within the first few weeks of the season, if not right away.
That’s if he proves physically and mentally ready for that task.
“I’m just getting around him,” Barron said of Bush. “If I see something he needs help with, I’ll most definitely help him out.”
In fact, Barron may find himself fighting Vince Williams for playing time as much as Bush if the first-rounder plays as well as the organization hopes.
“We can all play football,” Barron said. “We are all good players. We’ll see how everything goes.”
Similarly, if Johnson lives up to his draft-day hype, which may be impossible, he’ll be hard to keep on the bench. Moncrief may find himself trying to take looks from Eli Rogers and James Washington more so than Johnson in multiple receiver sets.
“When you are on the board, you’ve gotta take the best guy,” Moncrief said of Johnson. “And obviously he was the best guy for us. You’ve gotta take him in and teach him the game.”
As we predicted weeks before the draft, the Steelers were expected to have this approach. The replication at positions of need isn’t overkill. Because in each case, the Steelers need depth and starters at cornerback, receiver and inside linebacker.
In a perfect world, the rookies will be dynamic enough that the free-agent veterans become the depth and the rookies become the starters.
But any upgrade — in any combination — at those spots will be a welcome relief for Steelers fans.