Steelers Fans: Stop Complaining About Cheap Free Agency

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert . Credit: Andrew Rush / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert . Credit: Andrew Rush / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette /

Another offseason, another mob of Steelers fans complaining that the team is too quiet in free agency. What these fans fail to realize is that minimal action in the free agent market is the Steelers’ catalyst for success.

It’s that time of year again! The Steelers are too cheap in free agency. Kevin Colbert has no idea what he’s doing. This free agent would take us to the Super Bowl!

It’s no secret that the Steelers are traditionally stingy – if not utterly silent – on the NFL free agent market. While other teams cash out tens of millions on the league’s hottest names, the Steelers like to sign low-end free agents for the NFL’s equivalent of monopoly money. Pittsburgh’s most recent “big money” deal was Mike Mitchell’s 5-year, $25 million contract from 2014.

To the greedy fan, the Steelers’ inactivity in free agency is a dumb move, one that is made simply on the basis of “being cheap”. To the smart fan, though, quietness on the FA market is a tactical move from management, one that is at the core of the Steelers’ winning ways.

As spoiled Steelers fans, it can be very hard to truthfully evaluate this team. Decades of consistent success and stable management are two luxuries that most NFL teams have trouble dreaming of, let alone actually attaining. Since 2000, the Steelers have had only one losing season (6-10 in 2003). In that span, they’ve reached the postseason ten times, including three Super Bowl appearances, two of them victorious.

For the majority of NFL teams, those are staggering numbers. For the Steelers, they’re numbers that could be better. This is the difference between consistently-competitive franchises and those in the middle of the pack. (Or, in the case of the Browns, eternal losers.)

Look around the league, and a trend develops. Traditional powerhouses – the Steelers, the Patriots, the Packers, the Seahawks – devote their primary focus to the draft rather than free agency. On the flip side, teams like the Dolphins who regularly break the bank on top free agents (Mike Wallace comes to mind) are often left back at square one.

This is fundamental economics. Funneling 15% or more of a team’s cap space into a single free agent is, in almost all cases, a poor business decision.

Let’s go back to the Dolphins. Ndamukong Suh, Miami’s blockbuster free agent signee from 2015, consumes 17% of team cap space with a base salary of $23.5 million. The Dolphins offered Suh this whopping contract without ever seeing him personally on their practice field because his talent was seemingly too great to ignore. The result? The Dolphins finished 6-10, last in the AFC East. The team ended up firing general manager Dennis Hickey, the man responsible for Suh’s deal.

Ben Roethlisberger takes up 15% of the Steelers cap space, but he is an exception because 1) he is a homegrown talent, one who has delivered for his entire career, and 2) he is Pittsburgh’s franchise quarterback. It’s always wiser to sign a familiar player to a hefty contract extension than cash out on a relative unknown on the FA market.

The #1 name appearing on the Steelers’ radar is Chargers safety Eric Weddle, who is an unrestricted free agent this spring. Weddle is an accomplished safety, one who would undoubtedly bolster the Steelers pass defense. But when push comes to shove, the numbers aren’t likely to work out.

Weddle was paid $7.5 million last season as base salary, and the total cap hit rose to $10 million with a signing bonus. Right now, the Steelers have only $7 million in cap space to play with. It’s likely the team would rather use that money to make new deals for offensive linemen Ramon Foster ($2 million salary in 2015) and Kelvin Beachum ($1.5 million), two key offensive pieces. Other important Steelers free agents include William Gay, Brandon Boykin and Steve McLendon.

The classic strategy of investing in domestic talent has allowed the Steelers to invest in franchise cornerstones: Roethlisberger at QB, Cam Heyward at defensive end and Lawrence Timmons at linebacker, among others. Throwing all available cap space at Weddle, despite his fantastic abilities, is not as smart as investing in multiple players.

Calculated spending has allowed the Steelers to maintain their high level of play for years. Building the foundation always comes before adding to the exterior. This Steelers team would become a true force with Eric Weddle, but that dream won’t come without relinquishing cap space for other core players.

Would a high profile Steelers free agent be nice? Of course. But would said signing be part of the long-term solution? Probably not.

All contract information via Spotrac.