On Tuesday the Pittsburgh Steelers released starting cornerback Steven Nelson, four days after reportedly giving him permission to seek a trade. The roster move came less than an hour after Nelson fired off what he described as “a little out of my character” tweet, one in which he implored the team to stop holding him hostage.
‘We Need Volunteers, Not Hostages’
The Steelers were apparently hoping to get something in a trade for Nelson, but it seems he was getting impatient waiting for a trade partner to materialize, hence the contentious tweet. His use of the word “hostage” is an obvious reference to a phrase occasionally used by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who in recent years has been known to say, “We can’t do this with hostages. We need volunteers.”
This particular Tomlinism dates back to at least November 2018, when Tomlin told ESPN, “We need volunteers, not hostages,” after being asked about the ongoing absence of then-Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.
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With Nelson no longer “hostage,” the Steelers save $8.25 million in cap space—the amount the cornerback would have earned in salary this year had he remained on the roster. But it adds another $6.17 million in ‘dead money’ to Pittsburgh’s salary cap. That is, money allotted to players who are no longer on the team.
Following his release, Nelson went on to send another tweet in which he expressed his love and appreciation for Pittsburgh and for the Steelers, which he described as “a Class A organization from [the] top down.”
Cornerback Suddenly a Position of Concern
In the past week Pittsburgh has now lost a starting cornerback, as well as slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who signed a four-year contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Suddenly, one of the recent strengths of the team is now an area of concern. More notable is the fact that the Steelers haven’t had much success drafting cornerbacks, which explains why last year’s starters (Steven Nelson and Joe Haden) were both acquired in free agency. Even Hilton was a former undrafted free agent, who succeeded where former Steelers 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson failed.
For now, Joe Haden remains the No. 1 cornerback, though he will be 32 years old next season and is entering the last year of a three-year contract he signed in 2019.
The leading contender for the other starting cornerback job is probably Cameron Sutton, who was recently re-signed to a two-year extension. However, if another starter-quality cornerback emerges, Sutton could take over for Hilton in the slot.
The Steelers also have former third-round pick Justin Layne in the fold, who has the size (6-foot-2) and physical ability to start outside. In fact, Mike Tomlin showered Layne with unsolicited praise prior to the 2020 season, yet he failed to take a big step forward last year.
Meanwhile, a dark horse candidate to play a greater role in 2021 is James Pierre (6-foot-2), who made the 53-man roster last year after signing with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic University.
Also on the roster is Trevor Williams, a former starter for the Los Angeles Chargers who signed a Reserve/Future contract in January.
Meanwhile, Nelson’s contract is the second contract that the Steelers have terminated in the past week, following in the wake of the release of former inside linebacker Vince Williams.
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