Steelers Free Agency: Kevin Colbert, Man of Mystery


Kevin Colbert has not been known as a big free agency guy for much of his time with the Steelers. There have been a few smart moves like James Farrior or Ryan Clark that really paid off but these have been surgical, precise moves. Otherwise the Steelers rarely do anything in free agency. That has changed. It looks to be changing more. Given the circumstances, it has to.

We have plenty of room to improve on defense having one of the worst pass defenses in the league and a putting up fewer sacks than any Steelers unit in over two decades. We also are nearly 8 million under cap according to with only more room to come with Polamalu set to leave.

Sep 22, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Ryan Clark (25) in pass coverage against the Chicago Bears during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Bears won 40-23. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Colbert has maybe made some mistakes over the last couple years. It seems like the Steelers are constantly having cap troubles. Colbert spent a little too much effort in keeping the Super Bowl team together instead of putting a Super Bowl team together. They’ve begun to rectify this but too much effort and, worst of all money, has been put into keeping great players long past their expiration date and continuing to pay them like they’re great players.

Early on Colbert took a different approach. Players were often released or allowed to walk while they still had a few good years left, Joey Porter or Alan Faneca for example. He learned a lesson and put more into keeping great players. He might have learned that lesson a little too hard however.

There was a time when Warren Sapp said the Steelers defense was old and slow, and then it was great. He said the same thing next year, and it was great. He said the same thing the year after that, and was wrong again. I got about half a decade of joy from Warren Sapp being wrong. Years later it’s finally true, broken clocks and all that.

We’ve gotten younger, but not yet better. Much has been made of the Steelers not drafting well in recent years. I’m not sure that’s really the issue. First, consider DeCastro, Timmons, Pouncey, Brown, Bryant, Bell, and all the young players particularly on offense. Second, we’ve had to release a lot of great young talent for the sake of paying big contracts to players past their prime.

Consider all the young Steelers we’ve given to other teams. We had Emanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, and Keenan Lewis to name a few. As heartbreaking as it is that we might never see Troy in a Steelers jersey again, do you think we’d have been better off last year with Keenan Lewis or Troy Polamalu? Or next year? Or the year after? We all know the answer.

The loss of Wallace and Sanders didn’t hurt much because we continue to produce great receivers. However, those are draft picks that could have went elsewhere, on defense. There are several other players we’ve cut or left on the practice squad to be signed away in order to keep a legacy spot on the roster. Alameda Ta’amu, Josh Mauro, and Nick Williams were all solid prospects we lost or let go before they had a chance to show what they could do.

To his credit, Colbert is ever evolving. He adapts to the situation the team is in. He’s been adapting aggressively since 2010. Due to cutting, releasing, or asking players to retire at an accelerated rate over the last few years we now find ourselves in a good position cap-wise, good for us anyway, and it looks like we’re going to be freeing up significantly more money with additional cuts and restructures including the contract of Big Ben.

Last year we had a little breathing room under the cap and Colbert deployed a throw everything at the wall strategy by signing a large amount of veterans to fairly low salaries. Though some did not stick (Lance Moore, LeGarrette Blount), others paid off (Arthur Moats, Brice McCain).

Our defense wasn’t great, but we did win the AFC North and I’ll take that. Colbert himself said according to Pittsburgh Tribune’s Mark Kaboly, “There were more numbers, I guess, last year than we’ve done.” In my opinion that’s putting it lightly.

So what has Colbert learned? What is he planning? What will he do with all this money? He’s obviously up to something. An outside linebacker or cornerback are on most people’s minds.

Kaboly reports Colbert as saying, “We will certainly be looking at improving the pass rush, the coverage in the secondary, and those go hand-in-hand. But we will look at the free agency part first and move into the draft afterward,” so that suggests those positions are also on Colbert’s mind.

The answer might also shed some light on the approach of new defensive coordinator Keith Butler as he’ll undoubtedly have some influence over the decision. ESPN’s Scott Brown quotes Colbert as saying,

"“In the past we only got Keith’s input on linebackers. Now he’s going to be talking about defensive linemen, he’s going to be talking about secondary people, so there will be a learning experience for us to hear what his preferences are for those positions.” – Kevin Colbert"

For us as fans as well.

The earliest days of free agency have come and gone without much news for the Steelers. Arthur Moats was resigned and a few depth players already on the Steelers last year were offered contracts. The biggest Steelers related news was Jason Worilds retiring. Many potential Steelers signees are already gone including Brandon Graham and Pernell McPhee. Another snoozer of an offseason? Wait a minute. Did you hear that? It sounds like …

Ok, that’s incredible. I’m cautiously excited again. Yes, unrealistic, but when you aim high even if you come up a little short you’re still doing pretty well. This suggests the Steelers are open to swimming further into the deep end of the free agency pool than they’ve gone in decades, even if they’re just dipping their toes in for now.

If last year is any indication don’t bother guessing. Plus, I learned a long time ago predicting Steelers draft picks is a fool’s errand. Colbert just thinks differently than the rest of us. And that’s ok, because it’s tough to argue with 144-85-1, reaching 5 AFC Championships, reaching 3 Super Bowls, and winning 2 of them, not to mention 7 AFC North titles.

So here we are. We have needs, we have money, and we have Kevin Colbert. This is looking to be an exciting offseason by Steelers’ standards. There is not much precedent for what to expect. I for one can’t wait to find out.

Next: Steelers Free Agency Big Board

More from Still Curtain