Free-agency purge leaves Steelers with more questions on defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers like to draft, develop and re-sign their top players, which is why it’s not exactly a surprise to see at least 15 of their free agents either signing elsewhere or remaining on the market. The franchise re-signs their top players before they even get to free agency.

But despite a few key signings in early March, the Steelers’ roster looks thinner than it did a few months ago.

Is that a problem? Not necessarily. Depends largely what happens in the next six weeks.

In free agency, gone are starters at cornerback (Antwon Blake/Brandon Boykin), nose tackle (Steve McLendon), safety (Will Allen) and left tackle (Kelvin Beachum).

Some would argue the Steelers stood to upgrade some of those spots. But when coupled with Heath Miller's retirement and Martavis Bryant's year-long suspension, the losses leave the franchise with work to do.

General manager Kevin Colbert likes that part.

"As the market dries up a little bit, we can maybe find a guy we can make fit," Colbert said Sunday at the NFL owners meetings, via Steelers.com.

Here’s what I believe the Steelers might do in the next few months.

* Comb the second-tier defensive-back market with frugality in mind: Brandon Boykin, Patrick Robinson, Leon Hall and Sterling Moore are among the cornerbacks still available, and by now you probably know how this works in most cases -- the longer a player is available, the less money available.

With $2.6 million in cap space (according to NFLPA records), the Steelers won’t be big spenders the rest of the way. They haven’t restructured any contracts -- at least not yet -- to create more cap room. Look at the Steelers’ contract to recently signed left tackle Ryan Harris (two years, $3.9 million). That’s a good barometer for potential money they are willing to pay, say, a corner or defensive tackle. In fact, that’s almost identical to the deal they offered McLendon, who got at least $6 million more from the New York Jets.

Keep an eye out for Robinson, who got pretty far down the road with the Steelers a year ago. He eventually signed with San Diego and had a productive year.

* Draft a DB in the first two rounds regardless: This seems rather obvious. Even if Pittsburgh doesn’t sign a free agent, they can pair a first-round corner with Senquez Golson and William Gay. Maybe there you have something, assuming Golson is truly ready.

The Steelers feel there’s enough depth in this draft to get at least one impact player on the back end.

* Get capable inside-defensive-line help -- somehow: Maybe it’s worth the Steelers asking nose Terrance Knighton to play on a one-year deal. The team brought former Detroit Lions lineman Jason Jones in for a visit but Jones might be out of the mix by now. The draft depth at tackle is also good, so keep that in mind if the Steelers don’t spend in this spot. They won’t spend much money here. They plan to play a true nose tackle about one-third of the time.