Ranking the 2014 Impact of Pittsburgh Steelers' Free-Agent Signings so Far

Chris GazzeCorrespondent IMarch 23, 2014

Ranking the 2014 Impact of Pittsburgh Steelers' Free-Agent Signings so Far

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    Is Mike Mitchell the Steelers' biggest impact free agent this year?
    Is Mike Mitchell the Steelers' biggest impact free agent this year?Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are rarely active early in free agency, but two consecutive eight-win seasons has resulted in a shift in philosophy. Not only did the Steelers not sit and wait, but they made one of the biggest signings of the offseason with the five-year, $25 million deal they reached with Mike Mitchell.

    Mitchell’s deal was one of eight free-agent transactions that the Steelers have made since March 11. In Add in Jason Worilds signing his transition tag March 6 worth $9.754 million, and the Steelers have signed a total of nine free agents—including three from outside of the organization.

    Mike Tomlin told Steelers.com’s Bob Labriola that he is happy with the moves made so far.

    I think we’ve had some real positive developments thus far. We got a young, talented guy like Mike Mitchell, and Cam Thomas was important to us. Retaining Jason Worilds was important to us. Getting Heath (Miller) and Troy (Polamalu) done from an extension standpoint was important to us.

    Not only have the Steelers kept valuable players in place, they have added some much-needed depth in addition to players who expect to play major roles heading into 2014 and beyond.

    There is still plenty of time to go in the offseason, but it is worth assessing where the Steelers stand as the draft approach. Here is a look at the 2014 free-agent signings ranked in order from the least to the most anticipated impact for this upcoming season.

     

    Note: Unless otherwise noted, all transactions are courtesy of CBS Sports, and all statistics are courtesy of NFL.com.  

Honorable Mentions

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    Cody Wallace will be the top interior backup in 2014.
    Cody Wallace will be the top interior backup in 2014.Don Wright/Associated Press

    9. Michael Palmer

    Michael Palmer had a limited role for the Steelers offense last season in which he saw only 47 snaps, according to Football Outsiders. He made one reception for eight yards and contributed on special teams.

    Palmer will compete with David Paulson for a spot on the roster behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth. He is far from a lock to make the roster.

     

    8. Greg Warren

    Since 2005, Greg Warren has been the long snapper for the Steelers. That does not figure to change as he signed a one-year deal to remain in Pittsburgh.

     

    7. Guy Whimper

    Guy Whimper is a versatile backup who can play both tackle and guard. Last season, he played in 11 games and made two starts—both at guard. He will be fourth on the depth chart behind Kelvin Beachum, Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams.

    According to Football Outsiders, Whimper played 265 offensive snaps last season. He allowed 2.5 sacks and was penalized three times, according to STATS LLC (h/t Washington Post). Expect him to produce similar results in a reserve role this season.

     

    6. Cody Wallace

    Cody Wallace was a pleasant surprise for the Steelers last season. He played in nine games, starting four of them, and allowed only one sack and committed just three penalties, according to STATS LLC (h/t Washington Post).

    Wallace earned a minus-2.6 grade from Pro Football Focus, which ranked ahead Fernando Velasco’s grade of minus-4.9. He will be Pittsburgh’s top backup on the interior of the offensive line.

5. Cam Thomas

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    Cam Thomas will join the defensive line rotation in 2014.
    Cam Thomas will join the defensive line rotation in 2014.Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Cam Thomas was signed by the Steelers to help replace the loss of Ziggy Hood to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Al Woods to the Tennessee Titans.

    Hood played 633 snaps as a starter and a backup in 2013 while Woods played 216 snaps in a reserve role, according to Football Outsiders. With Cameron Heyward as the only experienced defensive end currently on the depth chart, it was imperative that the Steelers went out and signed somebody.

    Thomas started 10 games for the San Diego Chargers before being benched, according to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego. While this is a concern, the Steelers did not sign him to start.

    Labriola reported that Thomas was signed for depth along the defensive line. He will primarily play defensive end, according to general manager Kevin Colbert.

    Colbert told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Thomas was signed to play defensive end, but he could get looks at nose tackle as well. The Steelers use an extensive rotation along their defensive line, with seven players getting snaps last season.

    With three of those players, Hood, Woods and Brett Keisel, no longer on the roster, Thomas will be a major player in replacing those snaps. Expect him to participate in between 20 and 30 percent of the defensive snaps this season.

4. Will Allen

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    Will Allen provides valuable depth at safety.
    Will Allen provides valuable depth at safety.Don Wright/Associated Press

    After allowing him to leave as a free agent following the 2012 season, the Steelers re-signed Will Allen last October after he was released by the Dallas Cowboys. He provided some much-needed depth in the secondary.

    Allen had a solid year in 2013 between his time in Dallas and Pittsburgh. He finished with 43 tackles, two interceptions and four passes defensed while playing in both a starting and reserve role.

    After returning to Pittsburgh, Allen played in 369 snaps, according to Football Outsiders. Many of these came after he took over for an injured Shamarko Thomas in Week 10 in Pittsburgh’s passing packages.

    Expect Allen to once again be on the field on passing downs. He is one of the unheralded members of the defense who is not only capable in pass coverage but can also step up and defend the run.

    Allen’s versatility can fill a variety of roles on passing downs and step in at either safety position as a spot starter as well. He will once again be one of the key backups on the defensive side of the ball, and he should see over 30 percent of the total defensive snaps in 2014.

3. Lance Moore

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    Lance Moore will likely enter the season as the No. 3 wide receiver target for Ben Roethlisberger.
    Lance Moore will likely enter the season as the No. 3 wide receiver target for Ben Roethlisberger.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    With the loss of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, the Steelers had plenty of work to do to build the depth behind Antonio Brown.

    Lance Moore became a top target after Cotchery went to the Carolina Panthers, and the Steelers signed him to a two-year deal.

    Moore will likely fill Cotchery’s role as the No. 3 option for Ben Roethlisberger as Markus Wheaton has a chance to move into the starting role opposite of Brown.

    The 5’9” Moore does not bring size to Pittsburgh’s lineup, but he has had a productive career and can play both inside and outside. His former head coach, Sean Payton, had plenty of good things to say about what he can bring to a team, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com.

    While his production on paper is obvious, it only tells half the story. Lance came to us an undrafted rookie who went to NFL Europe and spent time on our practice squad. He went on to produce outstanding results on the field for us as a result of his work ethic, reliability and commitment to get better every day. He's been one of the pillars of what we have built here as an organization.

    While in New Orleans, Moore caught 346 passes for 4,281 yards and 38 touchdowns. His best season came in 2012 when he had 65 receptions for 1,041 yards, but those numbers fell last year as he battled a hand injury and dropped behind Kenny Stills.

    His production in 2013 should be comparable to what is expected of him this year. Moore had 37 receptions for 457 yards and two touchdowns last season. By comparison, Cotchery had 46 receptions for 602 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013.

    Moore does not need to be a superstar in Pittsburgh’s offense but rather a dependable option for Roethlisberger who can help move the chains and convert third downs.

    Moore may not put up 10 touchdowns as Cotchery did last season, but he should be good for at least 40 receptions and 500 yards while getting snaps as Pittsburgh’s slot receiver.

2. Jason Worilds

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    Jason Worilds will take over for LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker.
    Jason Worilds will take over for LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker.David Richard/Associated Press

    The wheels were set in motion for some big changes on the Steelers defense this offseason once Worilds signed his transition tag offer worth $9.754 million, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.

    As a result, the Steelers decided to release LaMarr Woodley as a post-June 1 cap casualty, per Brown. This move firmly entrenched Worilds as the starter at left outside linebacker.

    This move has a significant impact for the Steelers defense as it is moving on from a player who was once considered to be the foundation of the defense.

    Worilds had not been particularly impressive over the first three-and-a-half years of his career. He had been hampered by injuries and was benched in favor of rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. However, he would eventually earn that starting spot back and then really make some noise when he moved to the left side.

    Over his last six games of the season, Worilds had 37 tackles and five sacks from the left side. For the year, he finished with 63 tackles, eight sacks and two forced fumbles in 15 games—including 11 starts.

    For the first time in his career, Worilds showed that he could be an impressive-looking player at outside linebacker. For that reason, the Steelers brought the 26-year-old back for another year and would like to sign him to a long-term deal, per La Canfora.

    As long as he remains healthy, Worilds should play at well over 80 percent of the defensive snaps next season, and his production should increase. He has grown as a pass-rusher and run defender. Playing as the starter on the left side, he should have a career year in 2014 and make a significant impact for Pittsburgh’s defense.

1. Mike Mitchell

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    Mike Mitchell is the Steelers' most significant free-agent signing since Ryan Clark in 2006.
    Mike Mitchell is the Steelers' most significant free-agent signing since Ryan Clark in 2006.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Ryan Clark had been one of the most consistent players on the defense during his time in Pittsburgh and could be counted on for 90 to 100 tackles and two interceptions per season. But his play declined last year, and the Steelers wanted to get younger and faster on defense.

    They achieved that by signing Mitchell to a long-term deal.

    Kevin Colbert told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Mitchell was the team’s top target and that they liked him because he can get even better.

    Colbert: #Steelers released LaMarr Woodley because they couldn't keep him, Jason Worilds. And free safety (Mitchell) was first target.

    — Alan Robinson (@arobinson_Trib) March 23, 2014

    Mitchell had a slow start to his career, with just nine starts in four seasons with the Oakland Raiders. That all changed last season when he started 14 games for the Carolina Panthers and had 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks, eight passes defensed, four interceptions and two forced fumbles.

    In his one year in Carolina, Mitchell proved to be a physical player in the secondary and will be a perfect fit for what the Steelers do on defense. He will be able to provide deep coverage while Troy Polamalu can continue to freelance near the line of scrimmage.

    That does not mean that Mitchell will be an instant hit with the defense. He will have to continue to improve as a player—particularly in run defense—and will have to learn Dick LeBeau’s complicated scheme.

    Once adjusted, he should be a valuable asset for the defense. As long as he continues to develop as a player, Mitchell could go down as one of Pittsburgh’s best free-agent signings. Until then, he will still be its biggest impact signing since Clark in 2006.

    Expect a productive season for Mitchell. He may not reach 100 tackles as Clark has in the past, but he will be an every-down player who will add more in the coverage department. His presence in the secondary won’t make the Steelers elite against the pass, but it will be enough to help them improve on their ninth-placed ranking last season.