Last September the Pittsburgh Steelers traded a first-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Thus far, it looks to be an excellent trade for the Steelers, as Fitzpatrick intercepted five passes in 14 games and was named First-Team All-Pro in 2019, the team’s first defensive back to earn that honor since Troy Polamalu in 2011.
But Fitzpatrick’s immediate impact on the team’s defense overshadowed the efforts of some of his fellow defenders, including two cornerbacks, one being Joe Haden, who tied Fitzpatrick for the team lead in interceptions in 2019.
Steven Nelson: The Steelers’ Most Underrated Player
But another 2019 acquisition also played a pivotal role in the success of the Steelers’ defense last year, one that has not gone unnoticed by Pro Football Focus (PFF), which recently named cornerback Steven Nelson the Steelers’ most underrated player (even as it selected a ‘most underrated’ player on every other NFL team).
The Steelers signed Nelson to a three-year $25.5 million contract in March 2019, bringing him over from the Kansas City Chiefs, where he was the No. 33 ranked cornerback in the NFL in 2018, according to PFF. It looks to be an inspired move on the part of general manager Kevin Colbert, as Nelson was even better during his first season in Pittsburgh.
“By the numbers, Nelson was one of the league’s best cornerbacks last season,” noted PFF writer Ben Linsey. “Playing opposite Joe Haden, his 80.5 overall grade ranked sixth among all cornerbacks in 2019, and he allowed just 33 receptions on over 500 coverage snaps all year.
“Another season with numbers like that and people are going to start taking notice,” Linsey noted.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Secondary in 2020
Indeed the short-term outlook is bright for the Steelers’ secondary, which also employs former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds and slot cornerback Mike Hilton, among others.
It has become evident that head coach Mike Tomlin is also excited about the potential of second-year cornerback Justin Layne, a Michigan State product who was drafted in the third round last year.
In a recent conference call with Steelers’ fans, Tomlin specifically highlighted Layne’s development in the wake of speaking about Devin Bush, who himself is one of two Steelers on PFF’s list of potential ‘breakout’ players for 2020.
All the young talent—not to mention the return (from injury) of defensive end Stephon Tuitt—could enable Pittsburgh’s defense to improve on its performance in 2019, when it had the third-best pass defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed and finished tied for fifth in points allowed.
The AFC North’s Other ‘Most Underrated’ Players
In case you’re wondering, PFF named running back Gus Edwards as the Baltimore Ravens’ most underrated player, with Olivier Vernon and Carlos Dunlap earning the same honor for the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively.
Other notable names on PFF‘s list include Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan and Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
Follow the Heavy on Steelers Facebook page for the latest breaking news, rumors and content!