The Pittsburgh Steelers are unlikely to pursue any big-name free agents this offseason despite coming within one game of Super Bowl LI and having $37 million in salary cap space.
That isn’t the Steelers’ style. They believe in drafting and developing players then retaining the best once they reach free agency or the year before. In almost every instance, the Steelers will sign a free agent from outside the organization only to fill a temporary hole or add depth.
Signing tight end Ladarius Green to a four-year, $20 million contract last March after he spent the first four seasons of his career with the San Diego Chargers amounts to a real splurge. The move did not pay much dividend last season as Green played in just six games because of concussion issues and a slow recovery from ankle surgery.
With that in mind, here are five players the Steelers could target once the new league year opens:
Darius Butler, DB
The eight-year veteran defensive back turns 30 on Saturday and saw action at both cornerback and safety with the Indianapolis Colts last season. Playing some safety might be a sign that Butler is slowing down but Pro Football Focus ranked him 20th among the 112 cornerbacks who qualified.
He would provide quality depth in the secondary as a jack-of-all-trades type and give the defense a much-needed playmaker.
Butler had three interceptions last season — which matched the team-leading figure rookie cornerback Artie Burns had for the Steelers — in 12 games. Butler also forced a fumble, defended seven passes and had 27 solo tackles.
John Simon, LB
The edge rusher has made just 12 starts in his four-year career but has shown flashes of great potential, especially the last three years with the Houston Texans after being the Baltimore Ravens’ fourth-round draft pick in 2013.
Simon had 3.5 sacks in 11 games last season after recording a career-high five in 2015. The 26-year-old also forced a fumble, defended two passes and made 32 solo tackles in 2016.
The Steelers could use depth behind ends Cameron Heyward and Stephone Tuitt and outside linebackers James Harrison and Bud Dupree. It seems likely that Simon would have interest in coming to Pittsburgh as he was born and raised in nearby Youngstown, Ohio.
Brandon LaFell, WR
Depth at wide receiver was a problem for the Steelers after Martavis Bryant was suspended for the 2016 season by the NFL for a second violation of its substance abuse policy. Eli Rogers was solid, but not a big enough threat to keep opponents from consistently double-teaming All-Pro Antonio Brown.
LaFell, 30, had 64 receptions for the Cincinnati Bengals last season — the second-highest total of his seven-year career — on 107 targets for 862 yards and six touchdowns. He proved to be a fine complement to top wideout A.J. Green.
While LaFell would not be a long-term answer for the Steelers, he would provide protection in case Bryant encounters more problems in his attempted return.
James Starks, RB
Granted, Starks was just waived with a non-football injury designation by the Green Bay Packers after being limited to nine games last season because of a concussion suffered in an automobile accident. He averaged a miniscule 2.3 yards on his 63 carries in 2016.
However, the soon-to-be 30-year old would at least be worth bringing to training camp on a low-risk contract. The Steelers are expected to select star running back Le’Veon Bell’s primary backup in the draft and they are unjikely not to re-sign 34-year-old DeAngelo Williams in free agency.
If nothing else, Starks offers a better option than Fitzgerald Touissant, with whom the Steelers have an odd fascination.
Vernon Davis, TE
The Steelers could very well cut ties with Green and neither of their other tight ends, Jesse James or Xavier Grimble, are downfield receiving threats.
Though 33, Davis had a renaissance last season with the Washington Redskins as he hauled in 44 passes on 59 targets for 583 yards and two touchdowns. With the Steelers also likely to draft a tight end, he would be a perfect mentor for the youngsters.