Free Agency and the Steelers: Best & Worst Signings
In the wacky annual game of NFL free agency, the Steelers have rarely been players. An organization that takes pride in drafting players to fit their system, then developing those players into starters through solid coaching and experience on special teams and specialty packages – the Steelers have always viewed free agency as a means to fill out their roster depth, nothing more. Every so often, the Steelers will find a player to their liking and offer them a contract. More often than not, those players are chosen based on a specific role the team wants them to fill and not necessarily to become a starter. Whenever a free agent is granted an opportunity to join the Pittsburgh Steelers, they usually jump at the chance to sign with one of the premier organizations in the league – unlike the hometown Pirates, who essentially must bribe free agents to take their money. The Steelers are always contenders to win a championship, have a fan base that is unrivaled anywhere else in professional sports, and have a tradition that is unmatched.
While free agency is utilized as a means to build rosters by most of the other 31 teams in the NFL, rarely do the teams that lean on it as a crutch succeed. Fans only have to think back to the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles to be reminded of how quickly a free agent-based team can falter. In a sport where team chemistry is essential, the mixing of various high-profile free agents can be disastrous. Personalities and egos get in the way of the ultimate goal of winning football games, and usually the end result is not pretty. Regardless of past precedent, free agency is a part of football and every off season we see big names changing teams. This year, the Steelers have used free agency to bring in TE Leonard Pope and re-sign backup QB Byron Leftwich and WR Jerricho Cotchery. All three moves are sound transactions that help lay the foundation for the depth that a championship team needs. Leftwich has proven that – when healthy – he is a fine backup to Ben Roethlisberger. Cotchery played well in 13 games for the team in 2011 and will now take a larger role in the offense with Hines Ward gone. Leonard Pope is being brought in as a backup TE, after working with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley in both Arizona and Kansas City.
Even though they rarely sign free agents, the Steelers have made signings that benefited the long-term performance of the team. Vice Versa, they are not immune to the occasional “stinker” signing, a player who brings no value to the team and usually lasts a season or two before moving on to someplace else. Tonight we will take a look at the best and the worst of Pittsburgh Steelers free agent signings.
Top Five WORST Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agent Signings
5. WR Quincy Morgan, one-year $585,000 (2006) – Morgan was brought in to be the #3 WR in 2006 after a stint with the Cleveland Browns. He is on this list because he simply never amounted to much in his time with the Steelers. Signed to replace WR Cedric Wilson, who seemed to fall apart towards the end of the 2005 season, Morgan was expected to solidify the receiving corps and provide solid special teams play. Back in 2002, Morgan had been the Browns top target, catching 56 passes for 964 yards and 7 touchdowns. He would never regain that form, and by the time he reached Pittsburgh, he seemed lazy and disinterested. He lasted one season and only caught 8 balls for 119 yards all season, while having fumbling problems on returns and drop problems on offense. The Steelers simply did not resign Morgan after the season.
4. RB Duce Staley, five-year $14 million (2004) – This rankings may rile a few feathers in Steeler Nation. Staley was signed prior to the 2004 season after a solid run with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Steelers envisioned Staley as a back who could spell Jerome Bettis and possibly even take over once Bettis hung up the cleats for good. The team signed Staley to a very odd five-year contract, and got a decent 2004 season from Staley (707 yards rushing, 4 games with 100+ yards rushing). Unfortunately, that was pretty much all they got from him. Injuries sustained during the second half of 2004 required offseason surgery, and Duce was never really loose again in a Steelers jersey. He came back in 2005, taking a $1 million cut in pay to remain in Pittsburgh – then only had 38 carries during the Super Bowl season. His job was pretty much lost once RB Willie Parker established himself as the starter, and Staley was only able to play in one game in 2006 before being deactivated and released. All told, Staley played in 16 games for the Steelers, and never came close to living up to the five-year $14 million deal he signed in 2004.
3. QB Kent Graham, three-years $5.1 million (2000) – The Steelers had given QB Kordell Stewart a chance to be the starting QB in the late 90’s, but Stewart could never find his way. His brutal play would cause the fans of Steeler Nation to turn on him during the 1998-1999 seasons, and in the offseason the team went out hunting for a quarterback to challenge Stewart for the starting job in 2000. Kent Graham had been with both the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals prior to signing with the Steelers on February 28, 2000. He was the anti-Kordell in many ways, a pocket QB with absolutely no mobility and who made even worse decisions in the heat of the moment than #10. The Steelers plugged Graham in as their starting QB for the season opener against Baltimore. He completed 17 of 38 pass attempts and looked horrible while doing so. The team went 0-3 under Graham to start 2000, and eventually pulled him to reinstate Stewart under center. Stewart rallied the team back to a winning record, only to be injured in a game against Oakland at Three Rivers Stadium. Graham marched back out onto the field and promptly threw a horrific interception that Oakland CB Eric Allen walked into the endzone. Stewart came back into the game and rallied the Steelers from a 17-7 deficit to win 21-10, despite working on one leg the rest of the game. That was the last time Kent Graham wore a Steelers jersey, and the fans rejoiced.
2. PK Todd Peterson, four-years, $3.925 million (2002) – The Steelers were looking for a veteran kicker to come in and replace departed Kris Brown, who has signed with the Houston Texans prior to the 2002 season. Peterson was considered a solid kicker, owning a 79.8 accuracy rating – good for 13th in NFL history at the time. He was a massive failure in Pittsburgh. Unable to master the Heinz Field quagmire, Peterson had a horrific start with the team, hitting on only 12 of 21 FG attempts and having three kicks blocked in 10 games. Peterson injured his ribs in a game against Tennessee on November 17, and was placed out of action. The Steelers held an open tryout for kickers and ended up signing a little-known former North Carolina kicker named Jeff Reed. Reed came to the team and immediately paid dividends, kicking three FGs in his first game and making 17 of 19 in the final 6 games. Peterson had officially lost his job with the Pittsburgh Steelers. During the offseason of 2003, the Steelers bought out Peterson’s contract and sent him packing.
1. Sean Mahan, five-years $17 million (2007) – Sean Mahan was brought in to replace departed Pro Bowl Center Jeff Hartings prior to the 2007 season. He was thought to be a player who could step right in and excel on the offensive line, maintaining a tradition of solid center play that went as far back as Hall of Famer Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, and Hartings. Mahan came to the Steelers from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he started every game and was a big part of the super rookie season turned in by RB Cadillac Williams. The Steelers were thrilled to have Mahan and immediately plugged him in as the starting center. He was dominated from the first game and was massacred by the local media and fans throughout 2007. He constantly took stupid penalties that killed drives, and seemed to not have the type of attitude the Steelers coaching staff demanded from their players. After the 2007 season, the Steelers were more than happy to send Mahan back to Tampa Bay in a trade for a 7th round pick. Mahan would play sparingly for the next season in Tampa before being released, ending his professional football career.
The Steelers list of bad free agent signings is not easy to compile. The team has made many great signings, but few bad ones. I think the five listed have viable reasons to be considered the worst signings the team has made, at least in the post 1990 era. Morgan, Staley, Peterson, Graham, and Mahan were all busts as Steelers free agent signings, and there is no debate about that. Now onto the good stuff.
Top Five BEST Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agent Signings
5. FS Ryan Clark, four-years $7 million (2006) – The original signing of Ryan Clark was a move made out of necessity, as starting FS Chris Hope was an unrestricted free agent and signed a huge deal with the Tennessee Titans. Clark has been undervalued in Washington and New York, despite leading the Redskins in tackles in 2004. He played in 13 games for Washington in 2005, registering 57 tackles and 3 interceptions. The Steelers were in the market for a safety to play along side Troy Polamalu, a player who would allow the talented Polamalu to be more of a “freelance” player – roaming the field making tackles and interceptions. Clark became just that, a solid safety who would combine with Troy to give the Steelers the best safety tandem in football and help lead the team emotionally as they went on to win Super Bowl XLIII and another AFC Title in 2009-2010. Clark has been a fantastic Steeler player, making his first Pro Bowl in 2011 and becoming a fan favorite with his interactions via Twitter and in the community. He has become a leader on the defense and a true leader in the locker room. He has been a starter since 2006, and re-upped with the Steelers in 2010 for another four-year deal.
4. C Jeff Hartings, six-year starter, contract terms undisclosed (2001) – Jeff Hartings was a career offensive guard with the Detroit Lions when he became a free agent after the 2000 season. The Steelers signed him to play Center in the offseason before the 2001 season and he went on to be a major piece to the dominant Steelers run of 2001-2006, including being a part of the Steelers Super Bowl XL championship run. His play continued a tradition of Pro Bowl play at the Center position for the team, and he was a reliable, 2x Pro Bowler, and started 89 games for Pittsburgh before retiring after the 2006 season. Besides his play on the field, Hartings was a major part of the locker room and was very active in charity events during his time in Pittsburgh. His arrival in 2001 stabilized the offensive line situation, and his presence in 2004 allowed rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger to begin his career with a solid veteran center – something Ben has said many times was a major factor in his early success. After Hartings retired, the team went through an era of Sean Mahan and Justin Hartwig before drafting Maurkice Pouncey, who has gone on to become another Pro Bowl center for a team that will soon have two centers in the Hall of Fame (Webster and Dawson). Hartings was the man who allowed that tradition to continue. An all-time great free agent signing by any team.
3. DE/NT Kimo Von Oelhoffen, four-years $11 million (2000) – When the divisional rival Bengals allowed Kimo Von Oelhoffen to walk away as a free agent after a very productive 1999 season, it was the Steelers who quickly signed the veteran defensive lineman and plugged him in as a starter – first at NT and finally at DE. Kimo would go on to start all but one game from 2000-2005 and was a major part of the dominating defense that allowed the Steelers to win Super Bowl XL. Unfortunately, non-Steelers fans will always remember Kimo for his accidental hit on Bengals QB Carson Palmer in the 2005 AFC Playoffs that shelved the young star QB and essentially ended the best season the Bengals had in a decade. In Pittsburgh, we remember Von Oelhoffen as a gentle giant, a man who would always walk out of the stadium with his young daughter on his shoulders and sign autographs for every kid who wanted one. On the field, his play was unquestioned, as was his work ethic. Accumulating 19.5 sacks and 200+ tackles during his time in Pittsburgh, Kimo was unstoppable at times. His mentoring of Aaron Smith, Brett Kiesel, and Chris Hoke spearheaded the next great Steelers defensive line group. Incredibly fun to watch play, Kimo would go on to finish his NFL career with the Jets (2006) and Eagles (2007) before retiring in 2008.
2. OLB Kevin Greene, three-year $5.35 million (1993) – The oldest signing on this list, Kevin Greene was already an established pass rusher before coming to Pittsburgh on a three-year deal prior to the 1993 season. He immediately became the starter opposite OLB Greg Lloyd, giving the Steelers their first “Blitzburgh” experience. Greene would rack up 12 1/2 sacks in 2003, then really turned in on in 1994, leading the entire NFL in sacks and helping take the Steelers to their first AFC Championship Game of the William Laird Cowher era. In 1995, he again led the team in sacks and was a force on the team that win the AFC Title at Three Rivers Stadium and went on to play in Super Bowl XXX. Greene only lasted three seasons in Pittsburgh before moving on to Carolina in 1996, but his presence on the Steelers during the formative years if the Cowher era gave legitimacy and swagger to a team that was young and needed a leader. He made two Pro Bowls as a Steeler and was named to the NFL All Decade Team for the 1990’s. When he retired after the 1999 season, he had accumulated 160 sacks and is universally considered one of the greatest pass-rushing linebackers of all time.
1. ILB James Farrior, three-years $5.125 million (2002) – James Farrior was a 1st round pick by the New York Jets in the 1997 NFL Draft. He spent 1997-2001 with Gang Green, being used sparingly and never truly finding a position to call home. The Jets used him at OLB and ILB, but for the most part considered him a bust as a high draft pick and were more than happy to get him off their payroll after the 2001 season. Enter the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers signed Farrior and immediately installed him as the anchor of their defense at ILB. He paid dividends from day one, recording 82 tackles in 2002 and becoming a major force against the run. He got even better in 2003, registering 141 tackles and 1 interception. From there, he simply became the leader of the best defense in football and a key ingredient in three AFC Championship teams and two Super Bowl winning teams. The unquestioned leader and captain of the Steelers vaunted defense throughout his time here, Farrior played in two Pro Bowls and was named the Steelers MVP after the 2004 season. In 2004, the team extended his deal with a five-year $16.5 million deal, followed in 2008 by another five-year deal for an astounding $18.25 million. After 10 seasons in the middle of the Steelers defense, Farrior was released this offseason and looks to be on his way to retirement – barring an injury that would allow the Steelers to bring him back into the fold. Farrior has made it clear he will not play elsewhere, and if the Steelers no longer need his services, he will happily walk away from the game after a 15-year career. Few players have ever been as universally loved and respected by Steeler Nation as #51 and his signing in 2002 will go down as one of the greatest free agent signings in the history of the National Football League.
The Steelers have utilized free agency to bring in many players over the years, and there were a few that didn’t make the list but could easily be considered solid signings by the team. RB Mewelde Moore, OG Duval Love, DL Ray Seals, OT Wayne Gandy, PK Norm Johnson, RB Erric Pegram, CB Willie Williams, and many others have contributed to the Steelers after coming in via the free agent route.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will never be the Washington Redskins (Thank God). Free agency is simply a way to bring in an occasional player to help the current roster. The Steelers draft and develop players better than any team in football, and they remain loyal to their players until they feel the time is right to move forward. The free agent signings of S Ryan Clark and ILB James Farrior were key to the mini-dynasty the Steelers put together from 2005-2010. Kevin Greene was the player who got the mid 90’s Steelers over the hump and into their first Super Bowl since the 1970’s. All in all, the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to do things their way – and it is hard to argue with a formula that has produced more winning seasons, more Super Bowl Championships, and more Hall of Fame players than any other in professional football.
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