Pittsburgh Steelers: Top 5 Free-Agent Signings of the Kevin Colbert Era

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIApril 6, 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers: Top 5 Free-Agent Signings of the Kevin Colbert Era

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    In 2000, the Pittsburgh Steelers acquired some new brass in GM Kevin Colbert. Clearly influenced by the negative impact of two losing seasons from '98-99, the Rooneys recognized the need for change, and who can honestly believe that the resulting free agent signings haven't been mostly positive?

    During Colbert's tenure as the general manager, the Black and Gold have enjoyed the second championship era in team history, not only winning the elusive "One for the Thumb" that seemed so slippery throughout the '90s, but also winning a sixth championship to start the ring count of the other hand.

    Certainly, that's not a coincidence.

    In his stead, all-time great Steelers legends have come via free agency, such as James Farrior.

    And, inevitably, a few clunkers have also "graced" the Pittsburgh sideline. How many Sean Mahan haters still breathe fire every time they hear the lackluster center's name?

    As with any team, there's a mix of good and bad, but the returns speak well for Colbert in the ultimate gamble that is NFL roster building.

    Without further adieu, here are the five best free agent signings since the start of the new millennium, otherwise known as the "Colbert Era." Please note that the list is focused on acquisitions made prior to the start of the respective NFL season, opposed to midseason acquisitions like Chad Brown (2006).

    (Click here to see a countdown of the worst signings.)

Honorable Mentions: QBs Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch

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    While feelings may be mixed about the inclusion of Tommy Maddox, the fact remains that the reigning XFL MVP gave Steelers fans a magical carpet ride of a 2002 season. In fact, the '02 campaign was on desperate straits until Maddox took over under center. 

    After an 0-2 start, Pittsburgh trailed late in a home contest against the Browns, 13-6. After rallying the team to an overtime win, Maddox's aerial assault, a feat not seen since the days of the "Blonde Bomber" in the Steel City, helped rally the team to a 10-5-1 record.

    In the playoffs, "Tommy Gun's" passing assault continued, rallying the Steelers from a 24-7 deficit in the Wild Card Round to defeat the Browns, 36-33. He finished the game with 367 yards, three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.

    One week later, Maddox continued to play well, rallying the group from deficits of 14-0 and 28-20. 

    Ahead 31-28, the Comeback Player of the Year's throws began to sail over the heads of his intended targets. It appeared the pressure of winning a pivotal playoff game on the road may have gotten to Maddox, and he never got a shot at redemption, courtesy of a defensive secondary that had been torched all season. 

    In overtime, McNair led the Titans right down the field for a controversial 34-31 win. 

    On June 17, 2002, the Steelers signed former Detroit Lions quarterback Charlie Batch, a homegrown talent that showed promise during his starting days in Motown.

    Clearly desirous of success over fame, Batch has remained a loyal and content backup for his beloved Steelers. While many would argue that his apathy about being a backup is alarming, Batch has performed well in the role. In fact, not since Mike Tomczak had the Steelers possessed a backup quarterback that could so reliably win a key game.

    In Ben Roethlisberger's stunning absence, Batch led the team to an opening-night victory over the Miami Dolphins, throwing for the opening score.

    In 2010, his three touchdown passes (two to Mike Wallace) aided Pittsburgh greatly in a 38-13 beatdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    And, just last season, the "over the hill" Batch filled in for Big Ben during a 27-0 December win, though it was admittedly over the pathetic St. Louis Rams.

    Does he have the rocket arm and marvelous statistics of today's aerial artists? No.

    Yet Batch has a big heart, a capable skill set and the desire to win, which has worked in the Steelers' favor more often than not when his number has been called.

No. 5: Mewelde Moore

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    Mewelde Moore is a dual threat that many Steelers fans believe has been vastly underutilized. While statistics don't bear out Moore's ranking, those who have observed the runner coming through in key moments understand his importance to the squad.

    The 2008 champions were huge beneficiaries of Moore's play. The running back finished with 588 rushing yards (4.2 avg), 40 receptions, 320 receiving yards and six combined touchdowns.

    Starting for the injured Willie Parker, Moore's three-game stretch from Weeks 5-8 (including a bye) showcased his value. 

    First, Moore's 99 rushing yards (5.8 avg) and timely receptions aided Pittsburgh in a 26-21 comeback win over the Jaguars. The statistics do not give full justice to the frustration that Moore's timely playmaking caused for Jacksonville during the Sunday Night Football win in Florida.

    One week later, he topped his initial performance with 120 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a blowout win over the Bengals.

    Finally, despite 19 hard carries for 84 yards, Moore and the Steelers lost to the Giants, 21-14.  Ben Roethlisberger's careless play cost Pittsburgh a likely victory.

    As the eventual championship season wore on, Moore continued to aid the Black and Gold with his timely catches and key runs.

    While Moore hasn't quite duplicated his 2008 season in the 'Burgh, he continues to make key plays at unexpected times.

    Every time fans question if Moore has anything left in the tank, he proves himself again, most recently in scoring a key touchdown in a 25-17 win over the New England Patriots on October 30, 2011.

No. 4: Jeff Hartings

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    Ray Mansfield.

    Mike Webster.

    Dermontti Dawson.

    Maurkice Pouncey.

    And, by the way, let's not forget about Jeff Hartings.

    With Dawson's departure, the team needed a solid center to carry on the great tradition of supreme offensive line play that had become a Pittsburgh signature. I know, I know...what happened?

    While the team would butcher their next free-agent center signing with Sean Mahan (3/10/07), only to correct their mistake with the decent signing of Justin Hartwig (3/18/08) one season later, fans tend to forget the wonderful decision that was made by team brass on March 8, 2001.

    A first-round draft selection that had played with the Lions at guard, Jeff Hartings played in the middle of a solid Pittsburgh offensive line from 2000 until 2005, the Super season.

    Hartings was a supreme talent at center. Thanks in large part to his ability to pick up with other great team centers left off, Jerome Bettis continued to bruise through NFL defenses, and Willie Parker slashed and dashed his way to a wonderful '05 season.

    One wonders if Big Ben remembers the "good line" he had in front of him back in 2004, which featured Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith, Max Starks and, of course, Hartings.

    The underrated center may have received even more acclaim elsewhere, but he had the honor of playing in a city where the center position is already dominated by Hall of Fame names that would cause any other NFL team to salivate in envy.

No. 3: Kimo Von Oelhoffen

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    Who remembers Kimo playing nose tackle for the Steelers in 2000, prior to the drafting of Casey Hampton in 2001?

    If you recall his transition to right defensive end in 2001, you are certainly a fan in the minority. However, after taking care of business in the middle of the defensive front at the turn of the millennium, KVO (who spells out Kimo Von Oelhoffen, anyway?) switched gears, where he remained until his departure from the Black and Gold following the 2005 season.

    Many fans best recall Kimo for his pursuit of quarterback Carson Palmer in the opening stages of the 2005-06 NFL Wild Card Game against the Bengals.

    While Palmer released his pass with pinpoint accuracy for a deep gain, Kimo's pursuit caught up with the quarterback, who was hit on the leg by a downed Von Oelhoffen as he released the football.

    Writhing in agony, Palmer was forced to leave the game and spent an entire offseason rehabilitating torn knee ligaments.

    This may be the most common memory fans have of KVO, but he should also get credit as a standout defensive end in his own right.

    Was he able to chase down quarterbacks with the ferocity of a Dwight Freeney? Absolutely not.

    Did he contain the outside and plug up the run with the same consistency as Aaron Smith? Not quite, but close.

    Still, Kimo found his success in both facets, accumulating 20.5 sacks in his six seasons with the Steelers and consistently showing discipline in containing the run game. His excellent gap control allowed Pittsburgh to field one of the elite run-stuffing defenses almost annually.

    Regarding the run, a simpler way to say it is: trying to squeeze between Hampton and KVO was a beee-yooootch!

    Lastly, KVO was reliable, missing only one game in his entire career with the Steelers.

No. 2: Ryan Clark

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    Needing a solid complement for Troy Polamalu, as well as depth at the position after the departure of Chris Hope, the Steelers signed Ryan Clark on March 14, 2006.

    Adding the the appeal of signing Clark was the stupidity of the Redskins. Not only did Washington allow their starting safety to walk out the door, but they also got into a ridiculous bidding war with the St. Louis Rams for Adam Archuleta.  They signed the safety to a seven year, $35-million deal.

    Boy, everything Dan Snyder touches turns into...I digress. We'll just call him the anti-Midas.

    In 2006, Archuleta's only season with the 'Skins, he had 60 tackles, a lone pass defensed and no interceptions.

    Conversely, the savvy Kevin Colbert signed Clark. Pittsburgh brass saw potential in the young safety, and they obtained him for the value-packed total of four years, $7 million.  Wow-zahs!

    Today, the difference in value between Clark and Archuleta, whom Washington so coveted, seems ridiculous.

    Clark did decently at first, with 72 tackles, an interception and a few fumble recoveries in 2006. However, a game in Denver nearly cost him his life at the start of 2007.  The atmospheric conditions combined with his sickle cell trait caused a deadly reaction, and the safety was in life-saving surgery shortly thereafter. His season was over.

    In 2008, he returned with a fury.

    Since then, he's amassed eight interceptions while ranking among the team leader with over 90 tackles per season.  Like his counterpart, Troy Polamalu, his tackles aren't the result of pass-catching receivers, at least not exclusively. 

    His totals emanate from an ability and willingness to react to both pass and run, and Clark has showcased himself as a talented run-stopper in addition to his coverage duties.

    Who can forget the unbelievable hit he placed on Willis McGahee in the 2008-09 AFC Championship Game?

    Underrated as a safety who helps to defend the middle of the field, where some quarterbacks make a living (see quarterback-tight end connections in the 2011 playoffs), Clark is also the ultimate deterrent. A fierce hitter, Clark's "remember me" shots are not a facet of his game that receivers fondly seek.

    In addition to being an NFL champion, Clark also became a Pro Bowler in 2011.

No. 1: James Farrior

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    In a mere compound word: no-brainer!

    The acquisition of former Jets linebacker James Farrior, who was until recently the quarterback of the Steelers' top-ranked defense, on April 5, 2002 (exactly one decade ago as of yesterday) is the finest free-agency decision made by Pittsburgh in the Colbert era...

    ...and perhaps ever!

    Since becoming a member of the Black and Gold in 2002, Farrior has accomplished the following: two-time Pro Bowl selection (2004, 2008), two-time All-Pro (2004, 2008), two-time Super Bowl, three-time AFC Champion, Team MVP (2004) and runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year (2004).

    Not too shabby for an underachieving cast-off from the Jets, eh?

    In 2003, he had 141 tackles, which was his peak. Eight times, he finished with 100 tackles or more, and he had 90-plus tackles on two other occasions. In other words, he was consistently excellent.

    From 2004-11, he had 34.5 sacks and eight interceptions. He also had a knack for stripping the football from ball-carriers, forcing 15 fumbles in his career (eight with Pittsburgh).

    His finest playoff performance came in the famous 2005-06 AFC Divisional contest at Indianapolis.  Everyone remembers the rage of Joey Porter, who sacked Peyton Manning in an apparent game-ending series of events.

    Lost was Farrior's performance. James had 2.5 sacks of Manning, along with 10 tackles.

    Big players, big games...

    The biggest compliment to Farrior is his wide regard, amongst players, fans and experts alike, as the leader of a defensive unit that dominated during the decade of his tenure.  Farrior had a nose for the ball and a commanding excellence that was simply infectious to his peers.

    And, above all else, it is worth repeating that he was the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense in one of the two championship eras in team history.