The Pittsburgh Steelers have made few free-agency additions thus far. One has been to sign former Carolina Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract that includes a team-friendly $5.25 million in guaranteed money.
Mitchell has been brought in to replace departed free safety Ryan Clark, who is currently a free agent in search of a new team. However, Mitchell is a relatively unknown player to Steelers fans—and it could be an apt description for his entire NFL career.
Mitchell played college football at Ohio and was not invited to the 2009 scouting combine. At his Pro Day, however, he was impressive, running a 4.39-second 40-yard dash, completing 22 repetitions on the bench press and showing off a 37.5" vertical leap.
His speed in particular stood out to the late Al Davis, the former owner and team president of the Oakland Raiders, prompting the Raiders to draft Mitchell in the second round of the 2009 draft (47th overall). While it was an unorthodox pick—many draft analysts had never heard of Mitchell, who some had pegged to be a seventh-round pick—it was in line with many of Davis' selections.
Mitchell wasn't a full-time starter right away. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Mitchell played just 217 defensive snaps in 2009, most of them as a strong safety. His workload increased to 508 snaps in 2010, with a handful of starts. His 2011 was similar, with 507 defensive snaps played, before that dropped to 344 in 2012.
After the 2012 season, Mitchell was a free agent and the Raiders, who had faced numerous coaching changes, opted not to bring him back. In Oakland, Mitchell had a total of 139 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed. He was then signed by the Panthers and moved to free safety, where he started for one season.
The change of scenery was beneficial to Mitchell. His 2013 season—and his first as a full-time free safety and starter—was the best of his career. He had 66 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, four interceptions and eight passes defensed on a Panthers defense that propelled its team into the playoffs.
His one-year deal with the Panthers allowed him to prove his worth in the NFL; ultimately, he caught the Steelers' eye and earned himself a degree of job security in the process. However, Mitchell is more than just a one-year wonder. He's the perfect type of defender for the Steelers—a big hitter (one who has repeatedly been fined, in fact), an aggressive player and a willing tackler in both the run and passing games.
Mitchell himself thinks he's a good match for the Steelers, saying last week after being signed, "The brand of football that the Steelers are about and they play is very hard-nosed, physical and smash-mouthed. I think my personality and the way I play just meshes perfectly with what we are trying to do here."
He also helps the Steelers defense get younger, a task they've slowly been trying to accomplish over the past two seasons. Mitchell is 26 years old and turns 27 in June; in contrast, Clark is 34 and will be 35 in October.
That's not to say that Clark was ineffective in 2013. He was the team's second-leading tackler for the season, with 104 combined, and he had two interceptions. However, the limits of age and declining speed were evident. Clark had just one fumble recovery, four passes defensed and no sacks. He also gave up three receiving touchdowns to Mitchell's one.
In fact, Clark has never been extremely aggressive, with just 3.5 quarterback sacks in 12 seasons, compared to seven for Mitchell in five. Tackle totals aside, Clark has never had a single season as productive as Mitchell's 2013. The Steelers are clearly banking on Mitchell continuing to improve as part of a defense even better-suited to his talents than the Panthers were last season.
While the Steelers could have saved money by targeting Clark's heir apparent in the draft, safety is a difficult position for an NFL rookie to master in his first year.
Further complicating matters is the very nature of Dick LeBeau's Steelers defense, which doesn't lend itself to rookies being all that effective in their first year learning and executing it. Add into that the league's increasing use of slot receivers and tight ends over the middle of the field, and it's clear that the Steelers would have been at a disadvantage by starting someone less experienced than Mitchell at free safety.
Grade the Steelers' Free Agent Signing of Mike Mitchell:
Though Mitchell's total possible money paid out by the Steelers is high, his low guarantees mean he's at less risk to coast through his time in Pittsburgh, with a handsome payday already secured. He'll need to remain hungry and play with a chip on his shoulder, and that's exactly what the Steelers need from anyone becoming Clark's successor.
While Mitchell has been mostly an unknown for the first few years of his NFL career, his promotion to starting safety for the Steelers gives him an opportunity to become a household name like Clark before him. He certainly fits the mold of a Steelers defender while also meeting an immediate team need.
Contracts in the NFL are handed out in anticipation of what a player can do in the future rather than what he's already done. Therefore, Mitchell's obscurity doesn't mean that the Steelers have made a questionable signing. They believe that Mitchell can pick up where Clark left off and make the defense both younger and more aggressive.
There's nothing about Mitchell's one year in Carolina that says he cannot accomplish this. The Steelers may have just found themselves one of the true hidden gems of this year's free-agent class.