PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers typically sign their top draft picks before they hit the open market, leaving a free-agency list stocked with role players, some more important than others.
Pittsburgh's biggest questions in 2016, without a doubt, start with the secondary, where the team faces decisions on three of their top four cornerbacks and two of their top safeties.
Corner William Gay played almost every snap. Safety Will Allen was a mainstay, posting 80 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception after spending much of his 12-year career as a utility player. Brandon Boykin curiously didn't play for two-thirds of the season but served as a valuable slot corner late. Antwon Blake had his struggles in coverage but the Steelers still like his tough edge. Coaches liked Robert Golden's coverage skills as a third safety in the dime package.
All have their contracts up. And then there's Ross Cockrell, an exclusive-rights free agent who likely would return as a result.
The secondary rallied to play better in the final six weeks, but it still gave up close to 300 passing yards per game for much of the regular season. The Steelers have the option to let everyone walk and rebuild the back end of an improving defense or mix and match the players they value most while supplementing through the draft.
As it stands, safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Cortez Allen, who played exactly one game this year with a knee injury, are the only defensive backs with extended starter's experience under contract. The Steelers still have one more year with safety Shamarko Thomas, who was groomed for the job but couldn't hold onto it.
Re-signing Gay would be an easy decision. Coaches trust him. He has value here, and he should be available at a reasonable clip. My sense is Boykin will want a fresh start somewhere else. Perhaps they bring Blake back but he could be the odd man out. Do the Steelers see Golden as a starter? That's a question that would affect Allen. The team might be reluctant to re-sign both if that's the case. If Golden is viewed mostly as a special-teams standout, Allen might return a valuable swing safety who would help groom a draft pick.
I wouldn't be surprised to see an opening-day corner rotation of Gay, Golson and a rangy, athletic draft pick from the first two rounds. Cortez Allen is the wild card. As ESPN's Bill Barnwell pointed out, the Steelers can save $4.4 million by cutting Allen as a post-June 1 release. I don't think he's done, but he might be done in Pittsburgh because of the cap savings.
Signing a good cover-corner free agent such as Janoris Jenkins seems like a prudent decision, but the Steelers rarely go that route. Perhaps the Boykin trade in the preseason shows they are willing to take more shots in that regard.
If the Steelers want to jump from good to great, they'll need to develop or sign at least one elite cornerback. Once they figure out how to do that, they can game-plan for their free agents.
Mike Tomlin has work to do.
"I’m open to any mix that will put us in the best position to win," said Tomlin about his roster.