Offseason Maneuvers Part 1: Free Agency

Overall Grade for Steelers in Free Agency: A

Since the advent of modern-era free agency in the mid 1990s, Steeler fans usually dread this period of veteran players occasionally swapping teams, because Pittsburgh almost always ends up losing better players than they sign from other franchises.

Of course that strategy has worked. The Washington Redskins are the annual free-agency champions of the NFL thanks to free-spending owner Daniel Snyder. However, the Redskins have won a total of two playoff games over the last 17 seasons, while Pittsburgh has appeared in a league-high seven conference title games and three Super Bowls with a pair of world titles over the last 16 years.

The Steelers’ strategy is sound. They prioritize and usually wrap up players they deem most important to keep a year or two before they become unrestricted free agents by signing them to long-term contract extensions.

Historically, though, Pittsburgh rarely signed veterans to third contracts for fear of becoming an older team, having high-priced veterans not performing at previous levels and those players becoming a salary cap hindrance.

However, that strategy has evidently changed over the last three years, as Pittsburgh has decided to keep the core of its last two Super Bowl teams intact despite their increasing age. This should pay off in 2010 and 2011 but not for years after.

This past offseason looked bleak as well, since the Steelers had three key veterans slated to become unrestricted free agents in an uncapped year when owners like the Redskins’ Synder could spend freely.

The most important of these was nose tackle Casey Hampton, a five-time Pro Bowl selection whose ability to stop the run on early downs is paramount to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense.

The 32-year-old Hampton is not as dominant as he was three or four years ago, but remains one of the top 3-4 middle men in the game. With more teams switching to the 3-4 alignment in recent years, finding and keeping quality nose tackles has become more difficult and essential in this era.

In the last CBA, defensive linemen were given a raw deal, as tackles and ends were classified differently for one-year franchise tags. In contrast, offensive linemen at all five positions are grouped together to determine the top five salaries for such a designation.

The Steelers took advantage of this by franchising Hampton at a reasonable price and then getting him to accept a hometown discount in signing a 3-year contract for $21 million, an unbelievably cheap price in this market for a nose tackle of Hampton’s caliber.

Of course, the biggest concern (pun intended) with giving Hampton a long-term deal is that he might celebrate by ballooning to 400 pounds before training camp. Fortunately, Hampton was a regular in the Steelers’ offseason OTAs. He appears primed to remain the team’s starting nose tackle for at least two more seasons and possibly the duration of his contract since Pittsburgh did not select his eventual replacement in a loaded 2010 NFL draft for 3-4 nose tackles.

With Hampton signed before free agency officially opened, the Steelers then slapped the franchise tag on veteran kicker Jeff Reed, who is an accurate and clutch field-goal kicker despite playing half his games in Heinz Field, which is one of the three most difficult stadiums to kick field goals in the NFL. Reed converted 27 of 31 field-goal attempts each of the past two seasons.

Reed, however, is a liability on kickoffs, where he ranked last in the NFL last season in average distance. He also is a drunken fool, evident by his getting busted for beating up a towel dispenser in a late-night convenient store this offseason. Reed is now upset about not getting a long-term contact, but that should not affect his play. He has nerves of steel when the game is on the line.

Most pleasantly surprising was the Steelers being able to resign dependable free safety Ryan Clark after it appeared he was heading to the Dolphins for a little more money than the Steelers offered. Clark is a below-average athlete for an NFL starting defensive back. However, the cerebral veteran is a perfect compliment in center field to free-ranging strong safety Troy Polamalu.

There were no other free safeties of Clark’s caliber left in free agency and the Steelers would have likely been forced to draft a safety early to compete for a starting job this fall. Remember that even Polamalu struggled as a rookie in LeBeau’s complex scheme.

Now, the negative of that deal is that the 30-year-old Clark, who has absorbed much punishment on his body due to his physical style of play, probably will not remain a starter throughout the duration of his four-year contact. However, I could see him starting for two, maybe three years, and then playing in the dime defense if he is willing to stick around as a reserve, possibly at a lower salary toward the end of his contract if a cap returns as expected.

Impressively, the Steelers were able to get all three of their key free agents back. They made no attempt to resign tailback Willie Parker or cornerback Deshea Townsend, both of whom had excellent careers in Pittsburgh but are well past their prime if not completely washed up as shown by their performances in 2009.

The Steelers also resigned quarterback Charlie Batch and defensive end Nick Eason to add veteran depth at both positions, although neither is guaranteed to be on the roster at midseason.

More impressive, though, Pittsburgh added five key veteran free agents from other teams, all of who signed multi-year deals and should be key contributors beginning this fall. These signings greatly improved the team’s depth throughout the roster.

Two are familiar names who will be welcomed back by all. Larry Foote was a starter and solid run-down inside linebacker on two Steeler Super Bowl championship teams. He asked for and was granted his unconditional release before the 2009 season because he did not want to become a backup to the more athletic Lawrence Timmons.

Then, after spending one solid season with his hometown Detroit Lions, who IMPROVED to 2-14 in 2009, Foote was excited to return to a winning franchise in Pittsburgh with a 3-year deal, although he is slated to be the No. 3 inside linebacker behind 35-year-old James Farrior and Timmons.

My ideal scenario would be for the Steelers to start Farrior and Foote at inside linebacker, since they are clearly the team’s two best interior linebackers against the run. Then, take them both off the field on passing downs and insert Timmons, who struggles against straight-line running, but is the team’s pass defender, pass rusher, and run defender in pursuit amongst inside linebackers.

However, the Steelers apparently plan to keep Farrior and Timmons as the starters. It feels ridiculous to question a mastermind, genius like LeBeau. However, I am one of many Steeler fans who disagree with their Hall of Fame DC and Pittsburgh’s fine linebackers coach Keith Butler when they contend Farrior has not lost any speed in coverage due to his age.

Regardless if he starts this fall, Foote adds quality, proven depth to the Steelers’ linebacking corp and do not be surprised to see him replace his buddy Farrior as a starter by 2011.

The Steelers also brought back Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El, who agreed to a 3-year contract. Randle El was quoted as saying he was recruited to be Pittsburgh’s No. 3 receiver, which made no sense at the time because he was not going to play over Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes or Mike Wallace. However, the Steelers probably knew they would be unloading Holmes due to his off-field behavior before signing Randle El.

While Randle El does not offer the athletic threat that Wallace did last season, he is a solid, dependable No. 3 receiver who could also be an excellent No. 4 receiver if eventually beaten out by Emmanuel Sanders, a rookie third-round draft pick from SMU who offers more downfield speed.

Like Foote, Randle El is also a classy addition in the locker room and community. Finally, the gadget plays should be back in the Steelers’ offense this fall.

Pittsburgh aided its dismal special-teams units by signing safety Will Allen and receiver Arnaz Battle, both to 3-year contracts. Allen is a special-teams coverage stud who should also be an improvement over undersized Tyrone Carter as the No. 3 safety. However, he will have to show he is fluid enough in pass coverage this preseason to secure a spot in the dime package that LeBeau often employs on obvious passing downs.

Battle will afford Pittsburgh the luxury of dressing five receivers on gamedays, after the team usually only dressed four in recent seasons. This is because Battle is a pure football player, who has experience on all special-teams units, including as a gunner on punts (bye bye Anthony Madison), holding for kicks and as a kick returner, although the Steelers have better options to field kicks this fall.

Finally, long after the regular free-agency period had ended, the Steelers wisely signed former Cowboy Flozell Adams on the eve of training camp to be their likely starter at right tackle after losing standout Willie Colon to a ruptured Achilles tear.

The 35-year-old Adams is well past his prime, accrues lots of penalties and will need help in pass protection against some opponents. However, he is a much better option at tackle than anyone else Pittsburgh had on its roster after Colon’s injury and his addition increased the Steelers’ chances of returning to the postseason after a one-year absence.

Disclaimer: J.J. can vouch for this, but I do not think I have ever given the Steelers a grade of A in off-season free agency. Therefore, the front office should be commended for their efforts to improve the team this offseason through free agency, a period where they often remain too stagnant.

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  • John

    Hampton will lose 1 $million if his weight goes up, it's part of his contract.

  • JCRODRIGUEZ

    I think that the adjustment in the overall strategy makes more sense ir you realize a couple of things, number one, never before in the Free Agency era the Steelers had a Franchise Quaterback, so as long as that piece is there, the critical issue is to have talented weapons at his disposal, so more and more often we will see picks like Heath's, Santonio, Rashard, Limas (hit some, miss some) to keep the offense on tip-top shape, and, much like the Colts and Pats, be a perennial contender.

    Number two, with the offense set, and the need to bring offensive talen to keep them dominant, the defense then turns into a three way strategy, develop raw talent (lower rounds and Undrafted guys), extended periods for contributing veterans and the occasional high rounders (Ziggy and this year's backers). The offense is the driver's seat from here on out, even if we like it or not.

    Number three, This change in framework could be very well caused/heavily influenced by the labor issue, with the unknown coming on next year, the wisest thing could be to stick to what you know first ahnd, in terms of the human resource.

    I think that this new way of managing the team personnel could be very succesfull, of course, they need to keep a very good percentage of the draft picks to be successful, that is very big condition, but based on recent track record, I think that we are in good shape.

  • IsraelP

    McFadden?

  • Ted

    Israel, McFadden and Leftwich were acquired via trades through the draft and thus will be include in part 3, which focuses on the draft and draft trades.

  • Israelp

    OK. I figured that when youwrote “Two are familiar names who will be welcomed back by all,” you meant Foote and McFadden. El is less familiar to many of the “all” and is less obviously valuable. Certainly than McFadden.

    But I cannot quarrel with your explanation.

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