In 2019, the Steelers will trot out what should be their best cornerback tandem in some time with Steven Nelson working opposite Joe Haden. After this year, however, Haden is set to become a free agent. He's 30 years old, but he's playing well — extremely well — putting the Steelers in a tricky situation moving forward.
We dive into the stats to help break down the key factors for a possible extension, then sprinkle on some extra sauce for good measure:
• Extending Haden: Joe Haden has been a Godsend since he joined the Steelers shortly before the 2017 season, re-establishing himself as the kind of top-level cornerback that the franchise has so often struggled to draft and develop internally. But the Steelers face an interesting dilemma with Haden, who can become a free agent after the 2019 season. Should they offer him a long-term deal? On one hand, Haden led all Steelers defensive backs last season in Approximate Value (AV), a Pro Football Reference stat that seeks to measure a player's overall contributions across different positions on the field and different eras. With 6 AV, he ranked just outside of the top 15 among all NFL cornerbacks in 2018. On the other hand, Haden is a 30-year-old player at a position where speed is paramount. When a corner loses a step, it can be a steep fall from being a Pro Bowl-caliber player to being on the fringes of the NFL. The only Steelers cornerbacks age 30 or older to match or exceed Haden's 2018 AV total in a season are Mel Blount, Carnell Lake, Rod Woodson, Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend, Dewayne Washington and Dwayne Woodruff. If the Steelers extend Haden long-term, they'll be wagering that he can age more gracefully than most cornerbacks.
• Airing it out: Ben Roethlisberger seems to have found an early connection with free agent acquisition Donte Moncrief, a physical wideout who's hoping to reach new heights now that he's catching passes from a future Hall of Famer instead of Blake Bortles or Jacoby Brissett. Even in Jacksonville, Moncrief showed that he's a deep threat. He accounted for nearly a third of his team's total air yards (31 percent) in 2018, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Total air yards measures the percentage of a team's total intended air yards accounted for by one player. Moncrief ranked 13th among all NFL receivers in air-yards rate in 2018, showing that even Bortles was enticed to go deep and target this 6-foot-2, 220-pound player. Moncrief could get some of the deep balls that used to go to Antonio Brown, who ranked fifth among all receivers in air-yards rate (36 percent) in 2018.
• How T.J. Watt can get even better: Unlike another recent first-round outside linebacker, T.J. Watt has quickly established himself as an elite pass-rusher. Watt has registered 20 sacks over his first two NFL seasons, which is easily the most for a Steeler (LaMarr Woodley previously held the record at 15.5) and ranks just outside the top 20 among all NFL defenders since the sack became an official stat in 1982. Although Watt is already a Pro Bowl player, that doesn't mean he's a finished product -- he could stand to improve as a pass defender. Pro Football Focus gives Watt high marks as a pass rusher (a 79 grade on a 0-100 scale) and run defender (83), but he had just a 39 grade in pass defense in 2018. With Devin Bush in the fold, there may be less pressure on Watt to drop into coverage and combat tight ends and running backs. But if he can improve his coverage skills, Watt could become one of the best all-around linebackers in the game.
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