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Steelers roster breakdown: One thought on every player on the NFL’s priciest defense

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Steelers roster breakdown: One thought on every player on the NFL’s priciest defense

Russell Wilson and Justin Fields were the sexy offseason acquisitions for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But those moves temporarily masked what the organization values most and how it sees itself winning football games in 2024 — defense.

The Steelers added another big-name defender with the signing of Patrick Queen while also bringing Donte Jackson and DeShon Elliott to the back end, putting the unit in rare company in terms of financial investment. According to Over the Cap, the Steelers have $162 million tied up in their defense in 2024. That’s $25 million more than the No. 2 team (the Packers), $36 million more than the No. 3 team and twice as much as their own offense.

The Steelers rank second in spending on the defensive line, third on edge rushers, fourth on off-ball linebackers and second on safeties. By annual average, they have the fourth highest-paid edge rusher (T.J. Watt), the fifth highest-paid linebacker (Queen) and the third highest-paid safety (Minkah Fitzpatrick), plus high average salaries of $17 million for Alex Highsmith, $16.4 million for Cameron Heyward and $9.6 million for Larry Ogunjobi. All six of those players make more per year than any Steelers offensive player.

The team’s fate in 2024 will be determined by how the investment in defense pays off.

In this second installment of a two-part series, we will go over Pittsburgh’s defense and special teams, a group that has only 22 returning players (out of 47) from this time last year. That includes only five in the secondary as they’ve moved on from many who played significant roles in 2023. You can read Part 1 on the offense here.

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Defense

• DL Cameron Heyward: There are many questions surrounding Heyward, from his contract to whether he can get back to Pro Bowl-level play. That might not be answered until deep into the season, but make no mistake: Heyward is a major piece of this defense and its goals. In 2023, he missed six games with a core muscle injury, returned prematurely and didn’t play well. At 35, he’s the second-oldest interior defensive lineman on a roster.

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• DL Larry Ogunjobi: Ogunjobi has yet to live up to the big contract GM Omar Khan gave him last offseason. He was better last year than the year before because he was able to stay healthy. However, nearly $10 million per year has to produce more than three tackles per game and 4.5 sacks over 33 games.

• DL Keeanu Benton: Benton is on the verge of breaking out after a solid rookie season. How much he’s used in sub packages will determine how effective he will be in helping the defensive line.

• DL Montravius Adams: Adams is undersized and isn’t going to wow you with anything he does, but he’s versatile. That’s something this defensive line needs, especially with Heyward and Ogunjobi in their 30s.

• DL DeMarvin Leal: Leal has been a major disappointment since being drafted 84th in 2022. He had a brief stretch during his rookie season that offered a glimpse of his capabilities but hasn’t shown much since. Last year, he got just 26 defensive snaps over the final 10 games and was inactive for five of the last six, including the playoff loss to the Bills.

• DL Isaiahh Loudermilk: It’s a do-or-die season for Loudermilk. Actually, it might be a do-or-die training camp for the once-promising defensive end. Loudermilk is big and powerful, but that hasn’t translated onto the field consistently. With so much uncertainty on the defensive line between age and contract situations, he has a chance to build on his mild success late last year.

• DL Dean Lowry: Lowry was signed as a free agent from the Minnesota Vikings and has plenty of experience as a 3-4 defensive end. He is 30 and will be expected to spell Heyward, as he has a similar skill set as a power guy.

• DL Logan Lee: A sixth-round pick in April out of Iowa, Lee had nine sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss and 158 total tackles in three years as a starter with the Hawkeyes. He is considered a project right now but could be a good role player down the road. Don’t expect much from him during his rookie year.

• DL Breiden Fehoko: Fehoko was on and off the roster last year. He spent the majority of the season on the practice squad and, barring a rash of injuries, it appears that’s what he’s destined to do this year as well.

• DL Jonathan Marshall: Marshall was poached off the Jets’ practice squad late in the 2022 season and participated in camp last year with the Steelers. He was asked back again this year, suggesting there’s something the organization likes about him.

• DL Willington Previlon: Previlon was claimed off waivers from the Falcons a week after the conclusion of spring practices, making him the fifth player from Atlanta’s roster who has joined Pittsburgh since ex-Falcons head coach Arthur Smith became the Steelers’ offensive coordinator.

• DL Jacob Slade: Slade was a late addition to the roster. He spent last season with the Cardinals as an undrafted rookie.

• OLB T.J. Watt: What can you say about Watt? You can make an argument he should have three Defensive Player of the Year awards instead of one. He bounced back in a big way last year and stayed relatively healthy until the playoffs. He is still playing at an All-Pro level. He’s averaging just a tad under a sack per game in his career and has seasons of 22.5 and 19.5 sacks in the last three years.

• OLB Alex Highsmith: Highsmith’s numbers weren’t eye-popping in 2023, as his sacks dropped from 14.5 to seven, but he is still a disruptive force who could very well hit double-figure sacks again.

• OLB Nick Herbig: Herbig stood out during the spring and seems primed to make that second-year jump. He has the talent. The question is: Will he get the opportunity? Watt and Highsmith each usually play 80 percent of the defensive snaps, leaving little meat on the bone for Herbig.

• OLB David Perales: Perales has been around for a couple of seasons now and could be the No. 4 outside linebacker to make the roster.

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• OLB Kyron Johnson: Drafted in the sixth round by the Eagles in 2022, he played sparingly for them as a rookie before coming to the Steelers last fall. He has 19 career snaps on defense but 365 on special teams.

• OLB Jeremiah Moon: The Steelers claimed Moon off waivers from the Ravens in January. He will be battling for that fourth linebacker spot with Perales and Johnson, as they all have similar backgrounds — not many defensive snaps but a significant amount of special teams snaps.

• OLB Jacoby Windmon: Windmon signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Michigan State in late April.

• OLB Julius Welschof: Welschof played four years at Michigan and one at Charlotte. He’s part of the International Pathway Program, which will allow him to remain on the Steelers’ practice squad as an exemption for the entire season. Welschof was born in Germany and grew up in Bavaria.


Steelers linebacker Patrick Queen. (Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)

• ILB Patrick Queen: Queen was a significant addition at a spot of need. The former Raven said he took less money to sign with the Steelers because he wanted a chance to win. He’s taken some criticism for that statement, but with him in the mix as an every-down linebacker, the defense has a star player at every position on that side of the ball — Heyward, Watt, Fitzpatrick and Joey Porter Jr.

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• ILB Elandon Roberts: Roberts is extremely undervalued. He would be lauded for the season he had in 2023 if it wasn’t for a defense full of talent elsewhere. His no-nonsense, old-school mentality melds well with Queen’s athleticism. You can’t discount how much Roberts means as a leader and mentor to even the most seasoned veterans.

• ILB Cole Holcomb: Whatever the team gets from Holcomb this year would be a bonus. The Steelers have danced around the time frame for Holcomb’s return from a serious leg injury suffered in early November. At this point, they don’t need him, but it wouldn’t be bad to have him.

• ILB Payton Wilson: Wilson is as athletic as advertised. There might not be much room for him to get on the field defensively as a rookie, barring injuries, but he’s going to be a critical part of all the special teams units.

• ILB Mark Robinson: Robinson has been a major disappointment after having so much promise following his rookie year. Now, he’s at best fourth on the depth chart. However, he’s a difference-maker on special teams.

• ILB Tyler Murray: Murray spent a portion of his rookie season on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad. He’s not much more than a camp body at this point.

• CB Joey Porter Jr.: Porter is a star in the making. He made huge strides as a rookie, going from not starting to following the opponent’s best receiver all over the field. There is no reason why he can’t be in the mix for the Pro Bowl.

• CB Donte Jackson: The Steelers liked Jackson enough to trade Diontae Johnson for him. Jackson is a veteran who has played a lot of football, but we’ve yet to see whether he can be a complement to Porter.

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• CB Cameron Sutton: Sutton’s eight-game suspension complicates the secondary. He was going to start at nickel but will now not be eligible until the Week 10 game against the Washington Commanders.

• CB Cory Trice Jr.: Trice could be the biggest wild card on defense. If he can come back from a torn ACL suffered in the first padded practice of training camp last year, he could provide depth outside. It will be a wait-and-see situation regarding his health and how he picks things up after a lost rookie season.

• CB Darius Rush: Rush is raw, yet talented. He could shine in a training camp environment.

• CB Josiah Scott: Scott was running as the first-team nickel throughout the early portion of the spring before Sutton was signed. With Sutton’s suspension, he will be in the mix to grab that spot in the summer.

• CB Anthony Averett: Averett was added to the roster after participating in the rookie minicamp in early May. He played for the Ravens for four years before bouncing around to the Raiders, 49ers and Lions. He’s been injury-prone throughout his career but is healthy now.

• CB Beanie Bishop: Bishop went undrafted out of West Virginia but has a real shot of making the team, seeing playing time and even grabbing the starting nickel position out of camp.

• CB Ryan Watts: A sixth-round rookie, Watts had a solid spring but seems like more of a long-term project.

• CB Grayland Arnold: Arnold has been around for four years but has played just 228 career defensive snaps. He was signed June 5, so we don’t know much about where he will fit.

• CB Kalon Barnes: Barnes is in his second stint with the Steelers. He’s been with six teams over two-plus years.

• CB Thomas Graham Jr.: Graham played two years with the Bears and one with the Browns. His best bet is to find his way onto the practice squad.

• S Minkah Fitzpatrick: Injuries curtailed Fitzpatrick’s 2023 season. He was rarely 100 percent, and it showed. However, he’s still one of the best safeties in the game, and the Steelers have talked a lot about putting Fitzpatrick in a position where he can be a playmaker, as he showed in 2022.

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• S DeShon Elliott: Elliott was a quiet offseason signing, but he will fit well in the box safety role. A sixth-round pick of the Ravens in 2018, Elliott has started 50 games for the Ravens, Lions and Dolphins in the past four seasons.

• S Damontae Kazee: Kazee lost his starting job when Elliott was signed, but he will still have a big role in defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s three-safety packages. He can play in the slot in the big nickel or move back to safety if Elliott plays in the slot.

• S Miles Killebrew: Killebrew was an All-Pro special teamer last year but didn’t see much time on defense even with the Steelers battling through injuries and suspensions at the position.

• S Nathan Meadors: Meadors has played for eight teams since going undrafted out of UCLA in 2019. He played for the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL in 2023.

• S Jalen Elliott: Elliott had three different practice squad stints with the Steelers in 2023. None of them lasted more than a month.

Special teams

• K Chris Boswell: After missing a career-high eight field goal attempts and posting the second-worst field goal percentage (71.4) of his career in 2022, Boswell was deadly accurate in 2023, missing two of 31 attempts, including a 61-yarder.

• K Matthew Wright: Wright has a history with the Steelers but has little to no chance to unseat Boswell.

• P Cameron Johnston: The Steelers finally might have a top-10 punter. Johnston was the first player they signed in free agency and was paid well ($9 million over three years). Johnston’s 45.5 percent rate of punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line was sixth-best in the NFL in 2023, and his 4.5 percent rate of touchbacks ranked ninth.

• LS Christian Kuntz: Kuntz signed a three-year deal to remain with the team and besides a questionable false start call last year, he’s been flawless in his four seasons with his hometown team.

(Top photo of Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt: Kareem Elgazzar / USA Today)

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