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Pittsburgh Steelers release Steven Nelson: 3 best fits for star cornerback

Nov 3, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Steven Nelson (22) reacts after losing his shoe on a defensive stop against the Indianapolis Colts during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won 26-24. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ tight salary cap situation forced them to make tough decisions this offseason, and led to the release of Steven Nelson on Tuesday.

After spending his first four NFL seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Nelson signed with Pittsburgh in 2019 for three years and $25.5 million. His contract got cut one season short, which will make Nelson among the most coveted free agent remaining.

Steven Nelson thanks Steelers on social media, Pittsburgh in need of CB depth

Teresa Varley of Steelers.com reported the news of Nelson’s contract being terminated.

Nelson appeared grateful for his opportunity in Pittsburgh in a Twitter post, although it’s worth mentioning that only about an hour before then, he expressed frustration that he was being held back by the organization from moving on:

Well, any hard feelings Nelson had for the Steelers already seem to be water under the bridge.

By letting the 28-year-old veteran go, Pittsburgh saves what would’ve been a cap hit of over $14.4 million for 2021.

It wasn’t so much a product of Nelson’ play that caused his departure from the Steelers as much as it was the backloaded nature of his contract. Ideally, general manager Kevin Colbert would’ve kept him, because beyond Joe Haden, there are few viable options at cornerback on the current roster.

Having Haden and a safety duo like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds will help shore up the defensive backfield this upcoming season. However, there’s going to be pressure on third-year pro Justin Layne to likely step in for Nelson on the outside and start opposite Haden.

Read More: Pittsburgh Steelers sign general manager Kevin Colbert to 1-year extension

3 ideal team fits for Steven Nelson in free agency

Dec 15, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Steven Nelson (22) is tackled by Buffalo Bills fullback Patrick DiMarco (42) after an interception during the third quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts all immediately come to mind as teams that should consider adding Nelson on the open market. All of them have the cap space to do so, and have a strong enough need to justify investing in him.

San Francisco had a ton of free agents this offseason and elected to re-sign Jason Verrett, but lost Ahkello Witherspoon to Seattle and probably won’t bring Richard Sherman back. Verrett has had an injury-prone career and is hardly a guarantee going forward, and Nelson presents a younger alternative at the outside cornerback spot.

In Cincinnati’s case, one of Nelson’s Steelers teammates, Mike Hilton, already signed with the Bengals, so you can bet he’ll do his best to recruit him. William Jackson was easily Cincy’s best corner, and he left for the Washington Football Team. Nelson is an ideal player to step in on the boundary to upgrade the Bengals’ back end.

As for the Colts, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is simply one of the best in the business, and tends to get the most out of whatever Indianapolis gives him to work with. Xavier Rhodes is back on a one-year deal off a resurgent 2020 campaign, but general manager Chris Ballard needs to add some competition for the second spot opposite Rock Ya-Sin.

Instead of counting on the relatively inexperienced Ya-Sin to get the job done, it’d make more sense to bring in a player like Nelson — especially since the Colts still have the second-most cap space in the NFL at over $40 million, per Over the Cap.

Whether he lands with either of the three aforementioned suitors or somewhere else, Steven Nelson is still in the prime of his NFL career and is an excellent value option for any contender looking to bolster its pass defense. Don’t be surprised to see him snatched up soon, as there’s bound to be a strong market for him.

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