(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Perhaps the most surprising move of the Steelers' offseason thus far was the release of cornerback Steven Nelson, who PFF ranked as the sixth best corner in football during the 2019-2020 season. The Steelers were unwilling to commit $8.5M to Nelson for the final year of his contract, instead opting to re-sign Cam Sutton for about half the cost.
While much of Pittsburgh's decision revolved around confidence in Sutton's future as a player, the team likely also viewed Nelson as a depreciating asset. Nelson's play dropped in 2020-2021, culminating in a bad performance against the Browns in the Wild Card round.
Here's Baker Mayfield isolating Nelson in a man-to-man situation and completing a pass to Donavan Peoples-Jones.
And this is Nelson matched up with D.K. Metcalf in essentially the same situation a year prior. While Nelson was by no means a bad player in 20-21, he seemed to play more physically and decisively in 19-20.
In the NFL, you're either rising or falling and with the team in a well-documented salary cap crunch, the Steelers felt that now was the right time to move off of Nelson.
It makes perfect sense that the Steelers front office felt they could receive at least comparable production from Sutton, especially considering how he performed last season. Sutton started six games and amassed 8 pass break-ups, 3 forced fumbles, a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Sutton's growth throughout the season was palpable. While he occasionally made mental mistakes as most corners do in their first significant chunk of playing time in the NFL, Sutton's athleticism and instincts kept him around the football and showed off his penchant for making impact plays.
He's expected to line up on the outside next season, but Sutton has handled himself nicely in the slot when called upon. On this play, he actually gets beat by the double move in man coverage, but recovers and (with the help of a slightly underthrown pass) recognizes that Tee Higgins is getting ready to receive the ball while breaking it up. A really good football play.
I also really liked this example of Sutton's athleticism and IQ. He intially slips out of his break in Cover 3, but recognizes Josh Allen extending the play and makes a play on the ball about 40 yards down the field. Because this was a second-reaction play, Minkah Fitzpatrick had already committed downhill leaving Sutton with no safety help. This could have been a TD.
And finally, here's Sutton making the right read and reacting quickly on a tough play over the middle. You don't make this play without doing your homework.
In terms of measurables, Nelson and Sutton are extremely similar. Nelson comes in at 5-11, 194 lbs with a 72.7-inch wingspan. Sutton is 5-11, 188 lbs with a 73-inch wingspan. If Sutton can match his production next season with a larger sample size, the Steelers will be very pleased with their decision to roll with Sutton at the cheaper price.