PITTSBURGH -- Short of drafting an exceptionally fast linebacker who will become a franchise pillar, the Steelers were never going to truly replace Ryan Shazier, who will miss the 2018 season because of a severe spinal injury.
Without Shazier's rangy playmaking from sideline to sideline, the Steelers are forced to modify their identity a bit. The defense is built from the inside out, with anchor defensive ends Cam Hayward and Stephon Tuitt. Their contracts, worth up to a combined $120 million, say so. But Shazier's ability and a growing knack for creating interceptions improved the Steelers' pass coverage and streamlined their overall defensive attack in the back seven.
It's a rush-and-cover league, a style that suited Shazier perfectly.
Since finding that speed in free agency was not a possibility, the Steelers must adapt.
The last week has provided a glimpse into the team's plans:
Safety versatility: The signing of Morgan Burnett at three years for $14.5 million shows the Steelers are serious about improving a back end that had too many missed tackles and communication breakdowns late in the season. The team didn't enter free agency expecting to spend big but saw a sagging safety market and smartly attacked it.
Burnett is best suited as a strong safety but can play both spots, giving the team flexibility to move Sean Davis to free safety if that's the best route. The Burnett signing could affect J.J. Wilcox ($3.8 million cap hit), but the Steelers told Wilcox this offseason that he'd be in the mix to compete for a job.
With these three, the team can draft a safety but won't be forced to reach for one. Burnett was forced into helping out at corner for the Packers' depleted secondary in 2018, but he can play at slot corner in a bind or as a run-stopper.
The Steelers covet hybrid players.
“The more you can do, the longer you can stay around," Burnett told reporters after his signing Tuesday. "I have things in my toolbox that I'm capable to move around and play different positions if need be."
The succession plan: After signing a two-year, $4 million deal in the second wave of free agency, inside linebacker Jon Bostic is likely a stopgap option for the Steelers in the middle of the defense. But the Steelers were woefully thin at the spot opposite Vince Williams, and Bostic's signing represents progress. Even if he has lost a step, Bostic was a second-round pick in 2013 with a 4.61-second time in the 40. He should be able to help stop passes in the flat and in tight end coverage until a rookie linebacker is ready, which might be soon.
Cost-conscious improvement: The Steelers are seemingly always in need of more cap space, but they found a way to navigate the second wave of free agency by not overpaying based on the talent. Burnett at roughly $4.83 million per year is good business. He's a 29-year-old who started 102 games for a contender. According to a few scouts, Burnett has plenty of game left as a crafty veteran and opportunistic tackler.
Much was made of the Steelers' ability to replenish the defense while carrying Le'Veon Bell's $14.5-million franchise tag. Oh no, they have no cap space! Well, they just got two starters for less than $7 million per year -- likely less than that in 2018, depending on how signing bonuses and salaries are structured.
Still about the draft: The Steelers have spent their last five first-round picks on defense, and all five started significant games in their first seasons. The Steelers are unafraid to throw a young player into the mix. T.J. Watt was last year's unquestioned starter in training camp. That's why if an inside linebacker the Steelers like falls to late in the first round, the team will give him the chance to fill Shazier's void in earnest.
Enough needs are filled, so the Steelers can take the best-player-available approach. But even though they say that's their formula, all their recent top picks have filled positions of need.
The Steelers have a challenge to duplicate Shazier's athleticism in the first round, but a playmaker somewhere in the back seven might just help put them over the top.