The confluence of two events late in the offseason helped the Pittsburgh Steelers give their defense a potentially big boost.
For one, the Steelers freed up extra money under the salary cap by releasing standout guard David DeCastro on June 24. Secondly, edge rusher Melvin Ingram was still a free agent with the start of training camp just two days away.
The Steelers signed Ingram to a one-year, $4-million contract Tuesday with the hope he can bolster the pass rush after they lost Bud Dupree in free agency during the offseason.
The Steelers surely would have a more difficult time signing Ingram if not for the $7.9 million they saved by cutting DeCastro, a Pro Bowl selection each of the last six years. That increased Pittsburgh’s cap space to around $12 million.
Ingram played just seven games last season with the Los Angeles Chargers because of a knee injury and did not record a sack. However, the Steelers are hopeful Ingram can at least approach the form that enabled him to be selected to three straight Pro Bowls from 2017-19.
One reason for optimism is that Pro Football Focus gave Ingram a grade of 72.3 last season, which ranked 27th among all NFL edge defenders.
Ingram also had a combined 24.5 sacks in those three Pro Bowl seasons, 10.5 in 2017 and seven in both 2018 and 2019. He also took down the quarterback 10.5 times in 2015.
The Steelers have one of the NFL’s premier edge rusher in T.J. Watt, who was runner-up to Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald last season for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
Watt led the league with 15 sacks a year ago while being selected as a first-team All-Pro for a second straight season and being picked to his third consecutive Pro Bowl.
Alex Highsmith is slated to start opposite Watt this upcoming season. Yet while Highsmith started the last five games of 2020 after Dupree sustained a season-ending knee injury, he is still largely unproven.
A third-round draft pick from Charlotte, Highsmith finished his rookie season with two sacks. However, he also graded out highly with Pro Football Focus as his 72.9 mark was 24th at his position.
Dupree had eight sacks in 11 games in 2020 and the Steelers finished with an NFL-best 56. However, he was just 75th in PFF’s grades at 60.2.
The Steelers’ depth behind Watt and Highsmith was also thin until signing Ingram. They had journeyman Cassius Marsh, who has started nine games in his seven-year career, along with sixth-round draft pick Quincy Roche and three others who have gone to NFL training camps but never appeared in a regular-season game.