With crying needs at outside linebacker, cornerback, wide receiver and backup running back, the Steelers set their sights on Hightower, a big-name free agent who would have filled none of those holes. They apparently were willing to go nearly all-in on him during the first week of free agency while ignoring top-of-the-line players at their needy positions.
Hightower is overrated and overhyped, partly because he made two key plays to help the Patriots win two Super Bowls, partly because he was a first-round draft pick and partly, well, because he played in New England.
But if he was so valuable to the Patriots, why didn’t they sign him to an extension last year, and why did they let him test free agency?
Hightower is an inside linebacker, and the Steelers lost one of the best at that position when Lawrence Timmons signed with the Dolphins for two years and $12 million. But with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, they still seemed to be set at their inside starters for 2017.
Would Hightower been an improvement over Williams? Maybe, but maybe not much. Certainly, it would have been a luxury you’d think a team like the Steelers couldn’t afford.
Perhaps the Steelers thought they could use Hightower on the outside, since Bill Belichick moved him all around in New England’s defense. But there is little to show that he would have flourished out there, and he’s certainly not one to cover receivers as James Harrison and the other Steelers outside linebackers must.
They would have been better off going after a young outside linebacker like John Simon. Although he started just 12 games in Houston over the past two seasons, he had 8½ sacks, 2½ more than Hightower over that span. The Colts signed Simon, 26, as a free agent for $13.5 million over three seasons.
Steelers president Art Rooney II expressed a desire for his defense to put more heat on the quarterback in 2017. But Hightower isn’t exactly a pass-rushing machine. He had 2½ sacks last season, the same as Anthony Chickillo. He has 17 sacks in his five seasons with New England, or fewer than half of what Timmons (35½) had in 10 seasons — and Timmons did not become a regular starter until Year 3.
Hightower, a first-round pick in 2012, started right away for the Patriots. Unlike the ironman Timmons, he could not stay on the field and missed 11 games over the past three seasons. Timmons left Pittsburgh having started the past 101 regular-season games and played in the last 120.
The Steelers would have been better off signing Timmons to the deal Miami gave him instead of throwing money at Hightower, who at 27 may have his best years behind him.
Hightower as playmaker? Please. He had a career-high six sacks in 2014 and just six combined the past two regular seasons. That is 1½ fewer than Harrison, at 38, had in 2016 — 7½, including 2½ in the playoffs.
He could’ve contributed in other ways — but it was not through forced fumbles (two in his career), fumble recoveries (three) or interceptions (zero). Timmons had two interceptions in 2016 alone, 12 in his career, and had five passes defensed last season.
It is mysterious why the Steelers went after Hightower so hard while basically ignoring the rest of the top free agents. They rarely have gone after the big fish. Typical of their additions was the one they did make on Wednesday, their first this offseason: wide receiver Justin Hunter on a one-year deal, adding a speedy, 6-4, 200-pounder to their mix.
They struck out on other attempts to lure a few other average players at those need positions: outside linebacker Jay Elliott, who signed with Green Bay the day of his visit with the Steelers, and cornerback Davon House, whose agent came to terms with the Packers while he was visiting the Steelers.
And let’s say the Steelers had signed Hightower and used up a good chunk of their $20 million in cap space. What then?
They would still be left with big needs at outside linebacker and cornerback. Plus, how would Stephon Tuitt and his agents perceive Hightower’s deal when it comes time to negotiate an extension this summer. Or Shazier next year?
The Steelers rarely spend a ton of money in free agency, but this has also been the first time they’ve had a reasonable amount of room under the cap. They wasted their time trying to land the wrong player, and while they did not waste their money, they are left with few options but to add some lower-tier signings for depth.
After Hightower saved them from themselves, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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