PITTSBURGH — When cornerback Cameron Sutton officially hit free agency last week, a void opened in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ locker room.
It started expanding into a gaping hole when Sutton agreed to a three-year, $33 million deal with the Detroit Lions on the first day of free agency’s legal tampering period.
Not only would the Steelers be without one of their most cerebral, versatile defensive backs, it also left the group without one of its most veteran and consistent voices in an otherwise young position group.
That void didn’t last long, though.
Hours after losing Sutton, the Steelers agreed to terms with a replacement of sorts in adding Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson on a two-year deal. With a reputation for being an aggressive, elite corner, Peterson fills a physical hole in the lineup, but more than that, he instantly becomes the veteran voice in the room with nearly twice as much NFL experience as the next-oldest corner. It’s a role Peterson, 32, relishes.
“I’m the oldest of five, so it’s kind of in my nature ever since I could remember,” said Peterson, who has 12 years of NFL experience. Arthur Maulet, 29, is the closest on the Steelers with seven years. “No one has to tell me, ‘We think you should help this guy out.’ What I’ve done so far in my career, I feel like I have so much that I can share on to the next generation. Why would I want to hold on to that? I want to continue seeing guys play as long as they want, accomplish the goals that they set out for themselves. So, if there’s a nugget or any advice that I can give them, I’m all for it.”
Once a 20-year-old first-round pick by the Arizona Cardinals in 2011, Peterson grew into an elder statesman in the locker room during a 10-year stretch, mentoring players including fellow LSU product Tyrann Mathieu and Byron Murphy Jr., who recently signed with the Vikings to replace his former teammate.
“Pat Pete, he’s been my mentor since my rookie year,” Murphy told Minnesota reporters after signing. “So that’s like my big brother. … That’s my guy.
“I would say from day one, he was like, ‘You ready to work?”’ Murphy said. “I’m just like, ‘I’m ready to work.’ … He’s been there as an older brother, mentor, kind of coaching me through my ways, telling me to get better at this, even taking notes watching him doing those things, just pass down to the younger guys.”
Though the Steelers signed Peterson to a two-year deal, they could still add to the position in the NFL draft to further solidify the future of the defensive backs. If the organization goes that route, it could target Penn State product Joey Porter Jr. or Georgia’s Kelee Ringo.
Bryant McFadden, Peterson’s cousin and a former Steeler cornerback himself, believes having Peterson in the fold will greatly benefit any young corner the Steelers bring in.
“Where the Steelers are located at in the draft [No. 17], they’re able to take a corner in the first round,” McFadden said. “… Whatever they do in the draft in regards to the additions that they will make in the secondary is huge because now whoever that young corner is, if it’s Joey Porter Jr., [you tell him], ‘Man, Joey, follow Pat P. Learn from Pat P. Soak up as much as you can from him. Watch tape with him, talk to him away from the facility. Pick his brain. … The coaches love that type of leadership because that makes their job easy.”
McFadden, who hosts a podcast with Peterson, is nearly a decade older than his cousin, and Peterson had the benefit of watching and shadowing McFadden throughout his career.
When McFadden was drafted by the Steelers in the second round of the 2005 draft, he brought his younger cousin around for offseason training sessions with older Steelers in Florida.
Peterson was already the kind of guy people gravitated toward, McFadden said, but exposure to veterans like Ike Taylor and James Farrior taught him how to be a leader and help the next wave of players when it was his turn.
“He used to listen to our stories,” McFadden said. “He used to listen to us talk. He used to listen to us talk about other guys in other organizations where they’re not doing things the right way. And he was a very observant guy as a young kid. So when he became a professional, he kind of had the blueprint already.”
As a player who spent six total seasons and won two Super Bowls with the Steelers, McFadden especially recognizes the value in having a veteran in the room. Before he became one of those voices in his second stint with the Steelers, he learned from players such as Taylor and Deshea Townsend. Though the Steelers have some knowledge remaining in Levi Wallace and Maulet, Peterson’s 10-year stretch in Arizona and two-year stint in Minnesota — along with the experience of growing up with McFadden — will be hugely beneficial to replenishing and strengthening the position with younger players.
“Anytime you can add a future Hall of Famer to your team and a guy who’s still playing real good football, you take that and you run with it,” McFadden said. “Because what he can provide to the room is something that most coaches can’t provide with his experience. Being in the fire, knowing what it takes coming into the league as a young pup, dominating and being able to sustain that level of play throughout this career, that’s important.
“A lot of organizations, when they get rid of some of the older vets, you got a young guy learning from a young guy. That’s an accident waiting to happen.”