There are some decisions that require no thought whatsoever. Free tickets to the Steelers’ game? That’s a no-brainer. But there are some decisions that can only be described as “puzzling” and hard to fathom like “free tickets to a Browns’ game!” What the Steelers are doing with Mike Mitchell and J.J. Wilcox falls under the latter.
Not surprisingly, the Steelers have asked Mitchell to take a pay-cut. He’s scheduled to make five million this season and the Steelers feel like his play has slipped. He’s late on coverage, he doesn’t turn the ball over and after his trash-talking episodes weren’t backed up, he’s become a liability. That said, he should still be a priority over Wilcox shouldn’t he?
Reportedly (from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler), the Steelers have gone so far as to suggest that Wilcox will see more playing time and possibly even start in 2018. While it’s been no secret that I find Mitchell’s play to be lacking, the idea that Wilcox is even being retained has me scratching my bald head.
The Steelers knew their safety depth was in trouble when they traded for Wilcox just a day after setting the 53-man roster. Tampa Bay gave the Steelers Wilcox and a seventh round pick in exchange for our sixth. He went on to play in 12 games and recorded just 12 tackles. As the season wore on he saw time on Special Teams and didn’t even get a helmet for four games. There were several times where he recorded more penalties than he did tackles.
#Steelers 2017 Defensive Snap Counts, JJ Wilcox & Robert Golden
Games 1 – 6: JW: 131 snaps, 1 start. RG: 6 snaps.
Games 7-16: JW: 3 snaps. RG: 199 snaps, 2 starts
Why does PIT want to keep a guy who played 3 snaps over the last 9 weeks? Why keep a guy who can't beat out Golden?
— Ben Anderson (@BenAnderson58) March 11, 2018
Certainly much of this is financial. Mitchell is clearly not worth the five million he’s slotted to make and it’s unlikely he’ll take a cut, at least not the type of cut the team has proposed. Therefore it is expected that the Steelers will outright release him. While I do not think he will return on a lower salary, it is possible. He’ll likely test the free agent waters but the offers he finds may not be to his liking. If that holds true, why not stay with a team that is a legitimate Super Bowl contender?
As puzzling as this all is, what is just as mind-numbing is that Wilcox played behind Rob Golden. While I believe Golden to be a very good Special Teams’ player, I honestly don’t believe he’d be on many rosters league-wide. So what does that say for Wilcox and more importantly, what does it say for the thinking of the Steelers?
With limited cap space I expect the Steelers to look around for free agent safety help but not of the upper tier variety. They really need to hit a home run in the draft and that’s far from a guarantee. We’ve learned that Cam Sutton is being considered for a move to free safety. While Sutton certainly seems to have the football smarts to man the spot, that isn’t much different than hoping a rookie can fill the position. It seems as though the team may be making an effort to get the best 5 guys into the DB rotation regardless of what position they may play. That is symptomatic of a lack of depth, robbing from Peter to pay Paul. They have some depth at cornerback and they’re seemingly going to use it to bolster the safety position where they have none.
Did the Steelers panic a bit when they traded for Wilcox? That’s a fair question. Wilcox was known as a big hitter but his coverage skills are not a strong suit. I expect the Steelers’ safety situation to be one of trial and error through Training Camp. In some ways, that’s a positive because you may strike gold. But in most cases it’s a negative because you have zero certainty. Get your scorecard ready because you may need it to keep track of who is in the Steelers’ defensive backfield in 2018.