Steelers Urged to Bring Back Former Released Starter

A lot of NFL pundits have projected the Pittsburgh Steelers to re-sign veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson or Chandon Sullivan for secondary depth this summer. But ESPN’s Aaron Schatz went in a different direction, arguing the Steelers should bring back 2022 starting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

On June 20, Schatz named re-signing Witherspoon as the last move the Steelers should make before training camp.

“Even with the arrival of Cameron Sutton to play in the slot, the Steelers could still use more veteran depth at corner,” Schatz wrote. “Witherspoon, a former Steeler, was surprisingly good for the Rams last season — he ranked 18th in success rate in coverage and 37th in coverage DVOA with 14 passes defensed.

“He will likely be inexpensive to sign, as he’s 29 years old and could back up all three Steelers starters.”

Witherspoon started all 17 regular season games for the Los Angeles Rams last season. With that opportunity, he posted career-highs across the board with 52 combined tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 14 pass defenses and 3 interceptions.

With the Steelers, Witherspoon started seven games from 2021-22. The Steelers released the 29-year-old on May 17, 2023.

Should the Steelers Bring Back CB Ahkello Witherspoon?

Witherspoon began his career as a third-round pick for the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. After largely disappointing in San Francisco, Witherspoon showed promise during his first year in Pittsburgh during 2021. He worked his way into the lineup in the second half of the season and posted 3 interceptions in eight games.

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At the end of 2021, Witherspoon was a starter. He kept his starting role to begin the 2022 season.

But Witherspoon struggled severely, registering a 45.4 Pro Football Focus player grade in 2022. After three starts, he lost his starting job and became a healthy scratch. Witherspoon received another opportunity in Week 8, but when his struggles continued, he didn’t play again the rest of the season.

With the Rams, though, Witherspoon found himself, recording arguably the best season of his career. According to the PFF player grades, he particularly excelled at run defense.

How Witherspoon played in Teryl Austin’s defense two years ago might give the Steelers pause in signing the 29-year-old. But if Pittsburgh can add Witherspoon on an affordable contract, the risk is minimal, and he might present more upside than either Peterson or Sullivan.

“If he is willing to come back for cheap, then I am all for bringing back Ahkello Witherspoon on a one-year deal to compete with Cory Trice Jr., Darius Rush, Anthony Averett, and others,” wrote Steelers Depot’s Ross McCorkle.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Entering NFL Training Camp

The Steelers have made several changes to their secondary this offseason. The team released Peterson and allowed Sullivan and Levi Wallace to exit in free agency.

To replace them, the Steelers traded for Donte Jackson and signed Cameron Sutton, who also played for Pittsburgh in 2022 but elsewhere last season.

Jackson is expected to start opposite rising star Joey Porter Jr. Sutton should have a significant role in the slot.

Darius Rush, Cory Trice Jr., Ryan Watts and Beanie Bishop Jr. are exciting youngsters who could contribute at cornerback as well. But none of them have significant playing time at the NFL level.

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In fact, those four players have played a combined 39 NFL defensive snaps. All of those snaps belong to Rush. Watts and Bishop are rookies while Trice spent his entire rookie season last year on injured reserve.

An injury to either Porter or Jackson will test the unproven depth in Pittsburgh’s secondary. It’s also possible Sutton won’t be available for a large portion of 2024. He could face a league suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy.

Sutton was charged with misdemeanor battery and entered into a pretrial diversion program this offseason.

Therefore, adding a cornerback for additional depth would be a smart move for the Steelers. In the perfect world, it will be a cornerback such as Witherspoon, who can play outside and in the slot.

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