The Pittsburgh Steelers could target arguably the top free agent left on the market.
According to Dale Lolley of DK Pittsburgh Sports, the Steelers have some “interesting options” available in free agency. With the Steelers possessing just over $12 million in available cap space, Pittsburgh could target veteran free agents to fill roster holes.
As Lolley notes on his top 10 free agents that the Steelers should target list, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is the No. 2 ranked player on his pecking order. Lolley argues that Hicks could be Stephon Tuitt’s potential replacement if he sits out a second consecutive season.
“At 6-foot-4, 324 pounds, Hicks is a mountain of a man,” says Lolley. “And with 40.5 career sacks, the 32-year-old has shown over the course of his career that he can get to the quarterback. If Tuitt isn’t playing this season, this is the player the Steelers could pivot to to shore up the defensive line. Even if he is, Hicks would take some pressure off Tuitt and Cam Heyward to play 90 percent of the snaps.”
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Hicks Remains a Top-Tier Defensive Tackle
The 32-year-old Hicks saw his performance decline in 2021 with the Chicago Bears. Limited to nine games due to nagging injuries — including an ankle sprain — Hicks posted 3.5 sacks, nine quarterback hits and 11 pressures in 2021. By comparison, Hicks posted 3.5 sacks, 21 quarterbacks hits and 29 pressures during the 2020 season.
While Hicks is possibly on the decline due to his age, he still remains an effective force on the interior. According to Pro Football Focus, Hicks posted a 72.3 defensive grade and a 66.0 run defense grade last season. Those numbers were actually better than his 2020 grades, as he posted a 66.0 defensive grade and a 64.0 run defense grade that year.
Hicks actually ranked 23rd among all defensive tackles in defensive grade last season.
As Jeff Kerr and Jordan Dajani of CBS Sports explain, Hicks is the top-remaining free agent on the market partly due to his ability to line up on the edge or on the interior.
“Hicks isn’t that far removed from his Pro Bowl season (2018), as the 32-year-old defensive tackle had 3.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits in nine games for the Chicago Bears last season,” said Kerr and Dajani. “Hicks’ versatility will have some value for teams, as he can play the edge or line up inside.
The days of Hicks, 32, earning a massive contract appear to be behind him, but he can be a nice pass rusher in a rotation and is still a good run stopper (had 17 run stops in 2021).”
Why the Steelers Could Use Hicks
The Steelers struggled drastically on defense last season, ranking 20th in points allowed and 24th in yards allowed. Pittsburgh hasn’t ranked that low in points allowed since the 1991 season and hadn’t ranked that low in yards allowed since the 1988 season.
A large reason for that decline was the lack of an interior presence on the defensive line due to Tuitt’s absence. The run defense ranked dead last in yards allowed and yards per attempt.
The 28-year-old Tuitt missed the entire 2021 season partly due to a knee injury and partly due to his younger brother’s death in June of 2021. While the return of their starting defensive tackle will certainly improve a unit that ranked No. 3 in the NFL in points allowed in 2020, the addition of a former Pro Bowler in Hicks protects the Steelers with or without Tuitt.
As the Steelers look to return to their dominant defensive ways, Hicks could bring an added intimidating presence on the defensive line.
Given the Steelers’ salary cap situation and their struggles on the defensive end last season, Hicks could very well emerge as that missing ingredient for Pittsburgh entering 2022.