Have the Pittsburgh Steelers Made Smart Use of Their Money in Free Agency?

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Have the Pittsburgh Steelers Made Smart Use of Their Money in Free Agency?
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
Mike Mitchell signed a five-year deal with the Steelers.

With limited resources to work with, the Pittsburgh Steelers had plenty of work to do in order to get under the 2014 salary-cap limit.

According Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, the Steelers were approximately $7 million over the 2014 salary cap of $133 million.

That proved to be a non-issue for the front office. Through contract extensions, pay cuts and the release of several veterans, not only did the Steelers get under the 2014 cap figure, but also gained room to work with in free agency.

Unlike previous years, these transactions allowed the Steelers to not only re-sign their own, but also to bring in free agents from outside of the organization. So have the Steelers made wise use of their money?

The early returns say yes, but there is still plenty of work to be done.

The Steelers made an early splash as they addressed one of their biggest needs—finding a free safety to replace Ryan Clark.

Mike Mitchell was signed to a five-year deal worth $25 million. His cap hit is just $2.2 million for 2014 and he is guaranteed only $5.25 million per Scott Brown of ESPN.com.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Mike Mitchell will replace Ryan Clark at free safety.

Mitchell took over as the primary starter at free safety and compiled 66 tackles and eight passes defended. Though he may not match the production in terms of tackles that Ryan Clark has put up (104 last season), Mitchell has proved to be a playmaker.

Last season, he had three-and-half sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. These are the types of splash plays that the Steelers need in their defense and one of the reasons that Mitchell was a smart signing.

Ed Bouchette told The Cook and Poni Show on 93.7 The Fan that he believes Mitchell will be a great fit in Pittsburgh (h/t CBS Pittsburgh).

“He flourished last year at the right time,” Bouchette said. “He fits right in. He has speed, he can catch interceptions and he can tackle.”

There will be some that argue that the Steelers paid too much for a safety with one year of production. According to Shaun Church of Bleacher Report, free-agent safeties have averaged a three-year, $13.3 million contract with $5.8 million in guarantees.

Mitchell may make more per season than the average contract in free agency so far, but his guaranteed money is below the average—and well below the $26.3 million guaranteed to Jairus Byrd.  That is because of the breakdown of his contract.

Mike Mitchell Contract Numbers
Year Base Salary Prorated Bonus Roster Bonus Cap Number Dead Money Cap Savings
2014 $750,000 $950,000 $500,000 $2,200,000 $5,250,000 ($3,050,000)
2015 $2,000,000 $950,000 $2,000,000 $4,950,000 $3,800,000 $1,150,000
2016 $5,000,000 $950,000 $0 $5,950,000 $2,850,000 $3,100,000
2017 $5,000,000 $950,000 $0 $5,950,000 $1,900,000 $4,050,000
2018 $5,000,000 $950,000 $0 $5,950,000 $950,000 $5,000,000

Over the Cap

Essentially, Mitchell has two years to show that he is capable of playing at a high level. If he doesn’t live up to expectations, the Steelers can release him after his second season with a minimal cap hit.

But there is no reason to believe that Mitchell won’t have a long career in Pittsburgh. He is a player who has shown improvement, including a breakout season last year with the Carolina Panthers.

Besides Mitchell, Cam Thomas of the San Diego Chargers is the only other free agent signed from outside of the organization. It was necessary to make this move after Al Woods and Ziggy Hood bolted town.

Thomas signed a two-year deal with the Steelers and will take on a backup role along the defensive line.

 

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Cam Thomas will help replace Al Woods as a backup on the defensive line.

The 6’4” and 330-pound Thomas is a true space-eater in terms of his size, but not necessarily his play. He started 10 of the first 12 games last season before being replaced in Week 14.

Though Thomas may fill the need behind the starting defensive linemen, the Steelers currently only have one on the roster—Cameron Heyward—according to the depth chart at Ourlads. This is why it hurt when they were unable to come to an agreement with a potential starter at the position such as Alex Carrington.

 

Defensive end is not the only position that needs work.

The Steelers also lack any experienced depth behind Le’Veon Bell at running back or behind Antonio Brown at receiver. They also need major upgrades behind starting outside linebackers Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones.

Pittsburgh expressed interest in running back James Starks, but he decided to re-sign with the Green Back Packers. They also kicked around the idea of Maurice Jones-Drew, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (h/t Marc Sessler of NFL.com).

One of their most important free agents—wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery—is deciding between the Steelers and Carolina Panthers, per Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.

Joe Sargent/Getty Images
Jerricho Cotchery led the Steelers with 10 receiving touchdowns in 2013.

While it wouldn’t be devastating, losing Cotchery would be a significant loss for the Steelers. He led the team with 10 touchdowns last season and figures to be a major component of the offense for 2014. If he does not re-sign, this would be considered a mismanaged situation by the Steelers’ front office.

Another potential mistake would be re-signing James Harrison.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that there is a “mutual attraction” between Harrison and the Steelers as he could potentially rejoin the team as a backup. Though Harrison may be one of Pittsburgh’s all-time greats, he cannot have much left in his legs.

It is clear that the cap room early in free agency has now diminished and the Steelers are unable to make any more significant signings besides retaining some of their own backups such as Cody Wallace, Will Allen, Greg Warren and Guy Whimper.

A major reason that the Steelers have been handicapped is the contract status of Jason Worilds.

Chris Wesseling of NFL.com reported that Worilds will earn $9.754 million under the tag. A long-term extension will have to be worked out to lower this number and provide the Steelers with more room to work.

However, this will be easier said than done. Worilds has plenty of leverage as the Steelers' only proven pass-rusher, but they may not want to invest in a player with a history of injuries and a lack of production. Remember that before this season he never had more than 38 tackles or five sacks in a season.

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At this point, the Steelers will have to take a wait-and-see approach and observe how many free agents fall through the cracks. Adding a running back and wide receiver will be essential before the draft, but do not expect any big names.

Instead, the Steelers will have to use the draft to fill out rest of the roster, so it is essential that they make the best use of their draft picks. Otherwise, they will be signing players on the scrap heap this summer to build depth.

Though they made a rare splash, the Mitchell signing cannot save the early part of free agency. He may prove to be an outstanding signing, but the Steelers still have too many holes to call their use of cap space in free agency so far a success.

 

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