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Offseason free agent shopping with the Steelers: Defensive Tackle

As I already mentioned in a recent article, I don’t fully commit to evaluating the 2024 NFL Draft class until after the Combine has been completed. In the meantime, I focus on the available free agents at positions of need for the Steelers.

For this article, I am going to focus on what has become a familiar refrain in recent years; the Steelers need upgrades on the defensive line, particularly at nose tackle.

The Steelers found a potential gem in the 2nd round of the 2023 NFL Draft when they selected Wisconsin DL Keannu Benton. Benton was a man-child from the start, and he contributed meaningful minutes in every game last season. Benton played a good portion of the season out of position at nose tackle. Benton is strong enough to man the middle, but his athleticism screams wasted potential if the Steelers leave him fighting double teams all game. Honestly, Benton looks more like Cameron Heyward’s eventual replacement.

Speaking of our current Walter Payton Man of the Year recipient, Heyward is coming off an injury plagued 2023 season. He is due 22 million this upcoming season, and he no longer merits that type of compensation. Heyward has already had an offseason surgery, most likely a needed follow-up to his in-season core surgery. In a perfect world, Heyward would be willing to restructure his salary to a more reasonable rate, then be willing to make the inevitable move to nose tackle. Similar to how former standout Tyson Alualu lengthened his effectiveness and career with the Steelers. Heyward reportedly hasn’t been keen with either possibility recently, so only time will tell.

Larry Ogunjobi is more defensive end than tackle in my opinion. Regardless of position, Ogunjobi is a quick twitch athlete who happens to be matchup dependent. If Ogunjobi can win his individual matchup with his explosive first step, then he is going to be a complete nuisance all game. If Ogunjobi’s quickness is neutralized, he is usually lost in the wash, because he lacks effective counters. On a brighter note, Ogunjobi was able to remain relatively healthy in 2023.

The Steelers signed versatile free agent Armon Watts last offseason to a one year deal, which turned out to be a prudent decision. Watts proved to be an efficient and effective depth piece along the defensive line. While Watts is getting ready to hit free agency again, it wouldn’t shock me if the Steelers and Watts figure out a way to continue their mutually beneficial working relationship.

Beyond that, the cupboard is bare, especially at nose tackle. As previously mentioned, Cameron Heyward is a possible in-house option eventually. However, the Steelers need an immediate solution. Thankfully, there are a few free agent options that might fit the bill.

In a fantasy world, the Steelers would be in the mix for Christian Wilkins, who I believe is the second best free agent defensive tackle available, behind only superstar Chris Jones. Wilkins is a frenetic ball of energy with no real weakness. He is coming off the best season of his career, and is just entering his prime. He would be the perfect replacement for Cameron Heyward, but Heyward isn’t going anywhere just yet, and no way that the Steelers can afford Wilkins as is. The Dolphins would be wise to franchise tag that young man.

The Steelers could potentially kill two birds with one stone if they could sign D.J. Reader away from division rival Cincinnati Bengals. Reader is a dominant force in the middle when healthy. Reader’s incredible ability to anchor demands constant double teams, making life that much easier for his grateful teammates. Unfortunately, Reader suffered a torn quadriceps injury in Week 15 last season, so where he currently sits in his rehabilitation will obviously impact any contract negotiations. Wishing the talented young man the best of luck in his recovery.

That brings us to one of the most realistic targets on our list, and one of my personal favorites: Grover Stewart. I even like the name. Stewart has been a steady presence in the middle of the Colts defense for years. He is underrated, unassuming, and often overlooked. Stewart is extremely durable, and doesn’t miss games. He did receive a six game suspension in 2023 for performance enhancing drugs, and the Colts run defense struggled mightily in his absence. Just like with all selfless team first type players, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Stewart is 30 years old, but he is just coming into his own as a complete player. Long considered a superior run stopper, Stewart has been adding pass rush value in recent seasons. Stewart is also considered a solid teammate and locker room presence. Sounds like a good fit for the Steelers in my opinion.

There are other free agency options out there for the Steelers. Some more expensive than others. Who are some that you feel should be on the Steelers radar? Please share in the discussion thread below. As always, Go Steelers!


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