Nobody could have guessed that the Pittsburgh Steelers' first week of free agency would have been exciting. With the team in a financial bind only a week before the start of the 2023 free agency season, bringing in any big-name free agents seemed like a pipe dream. Well, they found a way to do that. They also brought in one guy who could be a very good if unheralded signing. Here we'll look at the absolute sneakiest signing of the Steelers during the first wave of 2023 NFL free agency.
There is no question that the Steelers have made significant improvements during the current offseason. They realized that they needed to make changes to their off-ball linebackers and offensive line, and they did that. Of course, Steelers GM Omar Khan played a key role in these generally successful and team-friendly free agent signings.
Now, some of the moves made by the Steelers were maybe a bit more questionable. The signing of Patrick Peterson for a high price tag was a bit concerning due to his age. The return of Larry Ogunjobi at a high cost was also a tad frustrating. Although Peterson is coming off a successful season with five interceptions, it's unclear if he can maintain that level of play at his age. Similarly, Ogunjobi needs to prove his worth on his hefty deal. That said, at least these veterans bring a lot of experience and leadership to this squad.
Overall, the Steelers have made a better collection of moves compared to the previous offseason. Now, while not every move is stellar, the Steelers have taken steps to improve their team for the upcoming season.
As we said earlier, though, the Steelers' 2023 free agency also included a sneaky signing that could really turn out to be a massive positive for the squad this coming season.
The addition of linebacker Cole Holcomb is a low-profile that has the potential to be a great acquisition if he can stay healthy. Holcomb is expected to replace Devin Bush in his previous position and perform even better. He is known for his ability to stop the run and play well in pass coverage. In fact, back in 2021, Holcomb had an outstanding season with 142 tackles, two interceptions, seven pass breakups, and two forced fumbles in 16 games.
However, Holcomb missed ten games last season due to knee and foot injuries. Despite the limited availability, he still managed to record an impressive average of nearly 10 tackles per game. In 2022, Holcomb was named a team captain for the Washington Commanders, demonstrating his leadership skills. The only concern with Holcomb is his previous injury. However, if he remains healthy, he is expected to outperform Devin Bush. Recall that the latter became a weak link in the Steelers' defense last season.
COLE HOLCOMB PICK-6!
Back-to-back #WashingtonFootball TDs makes it a 7-point game.
📺: #DALvsWAS on FOX
📱: NFL app pic.twitter.com/JfA5mMmLaS
— NFL (@NFL) December 12, 2021
One outstanding aspect of Holcomb is his consistent record of strong performance against the run. This is particularly noteworthy when compared to the players he is replacing on the Steelers' defense. These include Robert Spillane and Myles Jack aside from Bush. Take note that in his four seasons, Holcomb has never scored below 61.8 in run defense. Meanwhile, Bush and Spillane recorded a score below that number in six of their combined eight seasons in Pittsburgh. Although Spillane's score of 77.3 in that category was higher than Holcomb's 69.3, Holcomb's scores have been consistently in the 60s, suggesting that he will be more consistent.
Additionally, Holcomb's 43 stops in his last fully healthy season are noteworthy, according to Pro Football Focus. This is something the previous Steelers players did not do well. Bush had 47 stops as a rookie but never more than 27 since. Spillane peaked at 25 in 2022, and Jack managed only 28 in his one year in Pittsburgh. This indicates that Holcomb has the potential to be more involved in the game. Sure, his coverage abilities can improve. He allowed 60 receptions for 600 yards and 300 yards after the catch on 78 targets in 2021. Still, his grades in that category are not worse than those of the previous Steelers he is replacing.
The signing of Holcomb objectively fills a gap in Pittsburgh's defense. The only experienced inside linebackers left on the roster right now are Jack and Mark Robinson. Keep in mind that Jack carries an $11 million cap hit in 2023. We expect Holcomb to slide into the MIKE spot and just be a generally significant upgrade.
He's also used to adversity and overcoming it. Recall that despite missing the NFL Combine in 2019, Holcomb went to the Commanders in the fifth round of the draft. He went on to play in 50 games for them, recording 4.5 sacks, 239 solo tackles, and five forced fumbles. He also called the defensive plays for Washington and emerged as a vocal leader on the defense. With Holcomb's impressive track record and solid production, this is just a very prudent signing by the Steelers.