The new NFL league year begins at 4:00 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, and with it comes the start of free agency.
While the Pittsburgh Steelers aren't considered to be major players when it comes to picking up talent off of the market, considering their salary cap constraints, they are set to lose a number of veterans whom they cannot afford to re-sign.
Here's a comprehensive look at all of the Steelers' moves in free agency, from re-signings to new additions, roster losses to rumors as well as grades for every important transaction over the coming days and weeks.
Jonathan Dwyer received a low tender offer.
The Steelers made a number of pre-free-agency moves to shore up their own veteran free agents as best they could while working to clear a bit of extra salary cap space.
March 18: Will Graves of the Associated Press reports that the Steelers have signed free agent tight end Matt Spaeth to a two-year deal. Spaeth was a 2007 Steelers draft pick and spent four seasons with the team and before playing with the Chicago Bears for the last two seasons.
March 17: Despite reports to the contrary, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has not signed or been given an offer sheet by the New England Patriots.
March 15: Evan Sidery has reported that the Patriots have made an offer to Steelers restricted free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Steelers will have to match the offer or else he'll be in New England this year.
March 15: ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that Steelers restricted free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is meeting today with the New England Patriots. Sanders received the lowest tender of $1.323 million which means the Steelers could lose him if they cannot match any potential offer from the Patriots.
March 15: CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora reports that the Steelers will be hosting tight end Kellen Davis, running back Beanie Wells and linebacker Victor Butler today.
March 14: It's official: Free agent Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis is now a New Orleans Saint. Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times reports he has signed a five-year deal worth $26 million, including $11 million guaranteed.
March 13: Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News reports that the New York Giants will meet with free agent Steelers safety Ryan Mundy.
March 13: Howard Balzer reports that the Steelers have re-signed long snapper Greg Warren.
March 13: ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that Steelers free agent running back Rashard Mendenhall has agreed to a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals' head coach is Bruce Arians, his former offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh.
March 13: Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are reporting that Steelers offensive guard Willie Colon will be released on Wednesday but it will be designated for June 1 so that the team can recoup $5.5 million in cap savings rather than $1.5 if he were released outright immediately.
March 13: ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported the Steelers have signed quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, a Pittsburgh native, to a three-year deal to backup Ben Roethlisberger. Financial details are pending.
March 13: Steelers.com has confirmed that fullback/tight end David Johnson has received a one-year deal to remain in Pittsburgh. Johnson's 2012 season was cut short by a knee injury in the preseason opener.
March 12: ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that the Steelers will be hosting free agent Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Bruce Gradkowski on Wednesday in hopes of finding a backup younger than Charlie Batch.
March 12: Mike Wallace is indeed headed to the Miami Dolphins, says CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora. LaCanfora expects Wallace to make around $12 million per year, while Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has it at $13 million. It is a five-year deal.
March 12: ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that the Miami Dolphins are closing in on free agent Steelers receiver Mike Wallace and hope to sign him to a five-year deal.
March 12: ESPN's Jamison Hensley says the Steelers have interest in free agent running back Beanie Wells. Division-mates the Cincinnati Bengals are also pursuing him.
March 12: ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that the Steelers have come to an agreement with linebacker Larry Foote on a multi-year deal. Additional details have yet to be released.
March 12: CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora reports that the Steelers will be bringing back wide receiver Plaxico Burress in the coming days. He will receive a one-year, veteran minimum contract. The salary should be under $1 million.
March 12: Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL.com says that the Steelers don't seem likely to retain cornerback Keenan Lewis, noting that the Steelers don't have enough money to be players on the market.
March 12: Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that guard Ramon Foster's new deal is worth $6 million over three years and includes a $900,000 signing bonus.
March 12: Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley has agreed to a contract restructure that brings his 2013 base salary down from $9 million to $3.6 million, saving the team $4.05 million in cap space.
March 11: Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the Steelers have given a three-year deal to offensive guard Ramon Foster, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday. Financial details have yet to be disclosed; the move may signal the end for Willie Colon, who has a $7.65 million total 2013 salary cap hit.
March 11: The Steelers have given low-tender offers to four of their six restricted free agents; running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, nose tackle Steve McLendon and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders will each make $1.323 million this year if they aren't picked up by another team who beats the tender offer.
McLendon and Redman were undrafted, so the Steelers would receive no compensation if another team wants either of them. Dwyer moving on would give the Steelers a sixth-round pick while Sanders would fetch a third. If McLendon stays, Casey Hampton (who is an unrestricted free agent) is likely done in Pittsburgh.
Their other two restricted free agents, punter Jeremy Kapinos and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, were not tendered.
March 11: Sports Illustrated's Peter King said in his "Monday Morning Quarterback" column that the Miami Dolphins are alone in their pursuit of Steelers free-agent wide receiver Mike Wallace, at least when it comes to the big money. King believes Wallace could get around $11 million per season from the Dolphins.
March 10: Mike Klis of the Denver Post reports that the Denver Broncos are interested in free-agent Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall.
March 9: Dave Bryan of SteelersDepot.com says that running back Baron Batch and cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke are expected to receive a minimum exclusive-rights free-agency tender for 2013, worth $555,000 apiece.
March 9: The Steelers released veteran outside linebacker James Harrison after the team and Harrison could not come to an agreement to lower his salary for the remaining two years of his contract. Harrison was set to make $6.57 million in 2013 and $7.575 in 2014. His release frees up $5.1 million in cap space for this year.
March 4: The Steelers signed free-agent cornerback William Gay, who was released from the Arizona Cardinals where he spent one year. Prior to that lone season in Arizona, Gay spent five years with the Steelers and is projected to at least compete for the starting nickel corner job, if not be handed it outright.
Ramon Foster got a three-year deal.
Prior to the official start of the free-agency period, the Steelers wrapped up contracts with some of their own free agents and made one addition from the outside.
TE Matt Spaeth—two years; details yet unknown
WR Plaxico Burress—one year; veteran-minimum deal of $940,000
LS Greg Warren—$840,000
QB Bruce Gradkowski—three years; details yet unknown
FB/TE David Johnson—one year; details yet unknown
CB William Gay—three years; $4.5 million
RB Isaac Redman—RFA tender; $1.323 million
RB Jonathan Dwyer—RFA tender; $1.323 million
WR Emmanuel Sanders—RFA tender; $1.323 million
NT Steve McLendon—RFA tender; $1.323 million
RB Baron Batch—ERFA tender; $555,000
CB DeMarcus VanDyke—ERFA tender; $555,000
G Ramon Foster—three years; $6 million
LB Larry Foote—three years; $5.5 million, $2.5 million guaranteed.
James Harrison is... gone.
Roster moves are picking up now, as free agents move on and other veterans are potentially cut to save cap space.
S Ryan Mundy—Unrestricted free agent. New team: New York Giants; details unknown.
CB Keenan Lewis—Unrestricted free agent. New team: New Orleans Saints; five-year deal, $26 million, $11 million guaranteed.
RB Rashard Mendenhall—Unrestricted free agent. New team: Arizona Cardinals; one-year deal, $2.5 million.
G Willie Colon—Designated June 1 release; cap savings of $5.5 million. Signed one-year, $1.2 million deal with the New York Jets on March 15.
LB James Harrison—Cap savings of $5.1 million; no new team yet.
WR Mike Wallace—Unrestricted free agent. New team: Miami Dolphins; five-year deal worth $60 million.
Look who's back...
The Steelers made a surprising move prior to the start of free agency by picking up cornerback William Gay upon his release from the Arizona Cardinals.
Gay spent five seasons in Pittsburgh before playing for the Cardinals in 2012. He received a three-year, $4.5 million contract that includes a $500,000 signing bonus.
While it looked to some, at first, that Gay's signing was bad news for unrestricted free-agent Keenan Lewis, Gay's use to the Steelers will likely be as a nickel corner in place of the rather disappointing Curtis Brown.
Gay had 56 total tackles, a sack, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, two interceptions and six passes defensed in 2012. The signing meets a marginal need in Pittsburgh, but the real question is the amount of money he received and the length of the deal.
Well, that's that.
Five-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison was set to make $6.57 million in 2013, but it was common knowledge that the Steelers wanted him to take a pay cut in order to stay on the roster. The cut was to the tune of 30 percent, but apparently with incentives that would allow him to earn the money back.
That wasn't to Harrison's liking, however, so the Steelers decided to release him from the roster on Saturday. Harrison had 70 combined tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles in 2012 despite missing the first three games of the season after undergoing a minor knee procedure in the summer.
The move was a smart one for the Steelers, but a dumb one by Harrison to attempt to call the team's bluff. At nearly 35 years old, there's little chance he's going to receive nearly $7 million in base pay alone in 2013 from another team. More than likely, he'll get somewhere around 30 percent less than that—at best.
If he really wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, he should have taken their offer. If he doesn't get the deal he wants elsewhere, the Steelers' interest in taking him back may have been damaged.
Grade: A (from a Steelers perspective); D (for Harrison's decision-making)
Redman and Dwyer are good enough, for now.
Curiously, the Steelers decided not only to keep two of their restricted free-agent running backs—Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman—but they also chose to do so with the minimum tender of $1.323 million.
If Dwyer garners interest from elsewhere and leaves, the Steelers will get a sixth-round pick as compensation. If Redman leaves, the Steelers get nothing, as he was initially undrafted.
What the two tender offers signify about the Steelers' plans at running back is that they are relatively happy when it comes to their power game. Their speedy back, Rashard Mendenhall, is an unrestricted free agent and not likely to stay; however, it looks like whoever they choose to replace him with (probably a rookie draft pick) will be part of a committee running back approach this year.
Of course, the phrase to key in on is "relatively happy." No Steelers back was particularly productive in 2012, and the low tender offers reflect that. This is a prove-it year for both Redman and Dwyer; the Steelers clearly aren't married to either, but don't want to undertake a wholesale re-do of the entire offensive backfield, either.
Emmanuel Sanders stays for at least one more year.
Prior to Emmanuel Sanders receiving a restricted free-agent tender, the Steelers were low on signed wide receivers—only Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery were technically on the roster prior to the signing.
While Sanders isn't safe—he has been given the low tender offer of just $1.323 million, meaning other teams can come calling—at least the Steelers have made a move to keep their receiving corps mostly intact.
Last season, Sanders caught 44 of the 74 passes thrown his way for 626 yards and a touchdown. Without Mike Wallace in the fold this year, Sanders stands to take a larger role in the Steelers' offense. How he handles it will determine if he's worth a long-term deal in 2014.
While this was a move of necessity for the Steelers, Sanders has shown talent both on the outside and in the slot. In Todd Haley's ball-control offense, he should have a solid 2013 campaign.
Update: Sanders met with the New England Patriots on Friday, March 15 and received an offer sheet from the team. If the Steelers cannot match the offer, he will be leaving Pittsburgh. A front-loaded deal would be the best way for the Patriots to put the Steelers in a situation where they cannot match the offer.
Update: Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Sanders has yet to be given or sign an offer sheet from the Patriots, but the situation remains fluid.
The Pittsburgh Steelers immediately parlayed some of the money they saved—$4.05 million—by restructuring linebacker LaMarr Woodley early on Tuesday to re-sign guard Ramon Foster to a three-year deal.
Foster will make $6 million in salary over the course of the deal along with a $900,000 signing bonus. This may spell the end for Willie Colon, but that won't likely come until later. If the Steelers wait until after June 1 to do so, they'll save $5.5 million; cutting him now saves the team just $1.5 million.
Foster played 1,026 snaps in 2012 and started in all 16 games as both right and left guard.
The Steelers are in bad shape when it comes to their linebacker depth, which makes it no surprise that they decided to give Larry Foote a multi-year deal. What is reported to be a three-year contract will likely be just a one- or two-year deal. Foote will make $2.5 million in 2013. The signing keeps Foote off the market, where apparently the Arizona Cardinals were waiting to pick him up.
According to Pro Football Focus, Foote was ranked 46th among 53 ranked inside linebackers for 2012, but his value is greater than that for the Steelers. Veteran leadership is necessary this year, as is depth on the inside with 2012 draft pick Sean Spence not expected to be recovered enough from his knee injury to contribute this year.
For what it is—a one-year deal with an option of a full three years depending on the future of the Steelers' linebacking corps—it's not a terrible signing. It could have been a little cheaper, though.
With the two longstanding Steelers backup quarterbacks, Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, unrestricted free agents and starter Ben Roethlisberger turning 31 years old in 2013, it was finally time for the team to go a bit younger when it came to his backup this year.
Enter Bruce Gradkowski. A Pittsburgh native, he spent the last two years as Andy Dalton's backup for the Cincinnati Bengals. Over the course of his career, he's thrown for 4,057 yards with 21 touchdowns and 24 interceptions in 36 games. He's also 30 years old. He'll be a solid No. 2 for Roethlisberger over the course of his reported three-year deal.
Like last season, the addition of Burress to the roster is to supply their receiving corps with more depth. Currently on the roster are Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. Though the Steelers are likely to add more receivers via the draft, they certainly needed to boost their ranks. Burress, at the very least, has proven experience and a good rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that should be useful this season.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis was considered to be the Steelers' highest-priority free agent, but alas, they could not keep him, with Lewis instead option to join the New Orleans Saints on a five-year deal with $26 million, including $11 million guaranteed.
In his first year as a starter on the outside (taking over for William Gay, who is now back in Pittsburgh to work in the nickel position that once was Lewis'—the circle of life), Lewis was the Steelers' fourth-leading tackler and had a team high 23 passes defensed.
Barring a big draft-day move, the Steelers will have Cortez Allen move to the outside to take Lewis' job, while Gay and Curtis Brown will battle for the nickel job.
Grade: C-; That's a lot of money to pay
The Steelers' tendency to bring back their former players once they hit the free agency market continues with the signing of tight end Matt Spaeth to a two-year deal. Spaeth was a 2007 draft pick for the Steelers, playing with them for four years before spending the last two with the Chicago Bears.
Tight end is a position of need for the Steelers presently, with Heath Miller's status for the season-opener in doubt after tearing his ACL near the end of the 2012 season. Spaeth certainly helps with depth and is a talented blocker, but as a receiver he's nowhere near the talent of Miller.
Spaeth's most productive receiving year for the Steelers came in 2008, when he caught 17 passes for 136 yards. In Chicago, he had just 13 receptions over two years, for 78 yards and three touchdowns.