Tim Benz: Steelers’ free agency moves shouldn’t impact draft strategy | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz

Last year, the Steelers signed a 29-year-old free agent safety they thought could play like a linebacker.

This year they signed a 29-year-old linebacker they think could play like a safety.

This year’s move should be more of a sure bet seeing as how the candidate has been a full-timer at both jobs in the past.

Over the weekend, the Steelers inked former Los Angeles Rams linebacker Mark Barron. You may remember him in a previous life as St. Louis Rams safety Mark Barron.

Yeah, the guy who injured Ben Roethlisberger’s knee in 2015.

The acquisition could be a sign that the team is moving toward granting Morgan Burnett’s wish to be released or traded. Kevin Colbert brought Burnett on board last year in a failed attempt to create a hybrid linebacker-safety job as a way to buffer the catastrophic loss of Ryan Shazier.

After an injury-filled and ineffective first year in Pittsburgh, Burnett wants out because he didn’t like the job he signed up to do. Hopefully, Barron will take to it better.

Barron should, since he has legitimate experience at both positions, whereas the Burnett experiment was just that. An experiment. A theoretical belief that Burnett had the skills and physical versatility to play a position that essentially filled the roles of both dime linebacker and strong safety.

It turns out Burnett didn’t. And first-round pick Terrell Edmunds was fast-tracked enough as a rookie that there is no reason to retard his development at this point. Barron’s ability to cover as a linebacker with a safety’s background should allow him to stay on the field as a three-down linebacker and give Edmunds the freedom to focus on being a safety, where his athleticism suggests he could be quite good with a year of seasoning under his belt.

But while Barron should be better than Burnett (could he be worse?), he can’t be three guys at once. He can’t replace Burnett, upgrade from last year’s default starter Jon Bostic and substitute for Philadelphia-bound L.J. Fort.

Plus, all of those players still don’t add up to be half of Ryan Shazier.

So the Steelers still better be in the inside-linebacker market for this draft. If they can figure out a way to draft one of the Devins — Devin White of LSU or Devin Bush of Michigan — they need to do it.

That ought to be the case whether they stay put at the 20th pick in the first round or if they trade up.

Which they should, if necessary. The Steelers tried to do this last year to address the position and couldn’t pull it off.

The Barron signing at least provides a little cushion if the Steelers can’t grab a Devin and don’t want to reach to draft Alabama’s Mack Wilson or another member of the second tier of inside linebackers. The club would feel more secure in taking a superior wide receiver, cornerback or pass-rusher if one is available.

In fact, beyond the first round, apply the same mentality to inside linebacker as you would to those other positions Colbert quasi-addressed in free agency.

A best-case scenario for the Steelers would be to have Barron become a place-holding starter until a high-round pick figures out the position or immediately passes him on the depth chart. It would be great if recently signed cornerback Steven Nelson eventually becomes a Coty Sensabaugh-type because LSU’s Greedy Williams or Georgia’s DeAndre Baker can immediately start alongside Joe Haden.

Ditto if there is a wide receiver on the board good enough to be a legitimate No. 2 option to JuJu Smith-Schuster that Donte Moncrief probably can’t be. This appears to be the approach of Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin across the board in their free-agency tactics. Whether they say it out loud, they know their team has a ton of holes. Getting four or five impact players in one draft to patch them up is impossible.

It ain’t gonna be 1974 all over again!

So they found guys in free agency to at least dilute the problems at some of the positions of need when the draft invariably comes up dry.

Tomlin often uses the phrase “starters in waiting.” Consider Nelson, Barron and Moncrief “starters if necessary.”

After draft weekend, we’ll probably wake up saying one of those three men is in a position one slot above what he should be. By midseason, hopefully, the other two are bumped down a rung on the depth chart.

However, barring some unforeseen plummet of a top-flight pass-rusher, none of these three free-agent signings were made with the intention of defraying the need of a first-round draft choice at those same positions. Rather, they’d be here to complement to that pick.

At least, I hope. Until, of course, the Steelers draft a ninth offensive lineman to throw in the mix.

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