How the Steelers went from free agency ‘have nots’ to keeping our own

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 30: Maurkice Pouncey #53 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before his game against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on December 30, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 30: Maurkice Pouncey #53 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before his game against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on December 30, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t make moves in NFL Free Agency, but it works, and has continued to work throughout time.

In a previous article, I wrote about ‘Plan B’ free agency and what a tumultuous time that was to be a Steelers fan.  We set the time dial to 1989 – now, we will venture a little further down the timeline and land in 1993.

For all intents and purposes, free agency as we know it started in 1993.  Once again, we call upon Front Office Football for this snippet:

"NFL Free Agency (1993-Present)“In his closing arguments over Plan B free agency, the NFL’s attorney, Frank Rothman, said that removing Plan B ‘”would be the destruction of the National Football League that we know today.”That day came in 1993.White v. NFL led to the “White Settlement,” which is what brought about a new form of free agency. Any veteran with at least five years of experience (eventually lowered to four) would become unrestricted free agents. However, it allowed teams to name its most valuable player as a “Franchise” player, and in the first and final two years of the CBA, it could name a player as a “Transition” players, each of which restricted their movement on the market.Players with three or four seasons of experience were subject to the same right of first refusal/compensation system as before, essentially what we know today as restricted free agency. Teams had exclusive negotiating rights to players with fewer than three years of experience – what we know as exclusive rights free agents.The settlement also brought about the salary cap. In 1994, the salary cap was introduced to the NFL because player salaries in 1993 reached the agreed upon 67 percent of team revenues. Set at $34.6 million for its initial season, the cap intended to serve as an equalizer in response to free agency”."

For as “nerve-wracking” as it was to be Steelers fan during Plan B Free Agency, it was nothing compared to the utter devastation that accompanied the onset of Free Agency in 1993. While we will explore a few free agent departures and acquisitions, for me, it starts with Hardy Nickerson, who was drafted in 1987 in the fifth round out of California. A mid-round gem, in my opinion, Nickerson played middle linebacker for us until 1992, then, in 1993, he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I was crushed. Nickerson had been one of our starting LB’s for 5 years, at that point. Although he arguably enjoyed his best years as a “Buc,” could he not have enjoyed those years with us?  I’m sure he could have, but something called Free Agency got in the way. Here is an excerpt from the Orlando Sentinel dated March 19th, 1993:

"“The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the free-agent market in a big way Thursday, spending $5.1 million to sign Pittsburgh’s leading tackler, linebacker Hardy Nickerson. Nickerson’s deal makes him Tampa Bay’s highest-paid player and the NFL’s second-highest paid inside linebacker. Nickerson, who made $268,000 last season with the Steelers, will average $1.7 million per year.”"

With the salary cap set at $34.6 million for 1993, according to the Front Office Football excerpt initially referenced, every Steelers fan KNEW there was NO WAY in HE Double Hockey Sticks that Nickerson would be a Steeler that season; however, 1993 also marked the arrival of Kevin Greene, who is arguably in the top 5 of the best free agent signings by the organization. Although the sting of losing Nickerson was offset, somewhat, by the exuberance of the signing of Greene and by the excitement of a 2nd round pick out of Colorado named Chad Brown, whom we will get to shortly, the trend of losing top tier players and, intrinsically, the roller coaster ride of emotions, would continue for the next 20 or so years.

Before we get to Chad Brown, let’s talk about Kevin Greene. When Greene arrived in Pittsburgh, I knew he would be a tremendous compliment to Greg Lloyd. We had two outside “backers” who could rush the quarterback and were stout against the run.  Coupled with a secondary that included Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, Darren Perry and DJ Johnson, I knew we had something special. Greene instantly became a fan favorite, then something called Free Agency got in the way.

Free Agency giveth and Free Agency taketh away. In 1996, Free Agency took Greene away. Greene signed a two-year, $2 million dollar contract with the Carolina Panthers,  According to Steelers Depot:

"“Even though future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene only played three of his 15 seasons in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he left one indelible mark with the franchise. After the 1995 season, however, Greene left Pittsburgh to sign a two-year, $2 million contract with the Carolina Panthers and at the time, several fans couldn’t understand what led to him not re-signing with the Steelers.”"

By all accounts, Greene was a tremendous teammate and a “high character” player; the type of player our team prides itself in drafting, signing and/or retaining; however, with a young ( and less expensive player) waiting in the wings by the name of Jason Gildon, Greene was not resigned.  Was a $2 million dollar contract too much to resign a future Hall of Famer?  Again, I was inconsolable.  We just let Kevin Greene walk.  What were we thinking?  From a fan’s perspective, we were opting for cheaper, younger talent.

Chad Brown played for us from 1993 to 1996.  In 1996, he tallied 13 sacks.  We all know how we love sacks in Pittsburgh and how we adore the players who produce them.  Once again, Free Agency taketh away.  In 1997, Brown signed with the Seattle Seahawks; this from a John Clayton article he wrote for ESPN:

"“Brown, 32, was one of the major free agent signings in 1997 when he agreed to a six-year, $24 million contract, making him one of the first $4 million linebackers. Brown played through this contract, which was set to expire after this season.”"

There was no way we were going to pay one player $4 million per year, even though that player had just put up 13 sacks the prior season.  At this point, it became clear that we just weren’t going to “pony up” the dollars to keep our own. I thought to myself, “Is this going to be our fate?  Are we going to draft and cultivate talented players, only to have them snatched from our grasp by a monster called Free Agency?”

Those weren’t quite the exact words I uttered, but we need to keep this at a “PG” level. After having lost Nickerson, Greene and Brown to Free Agency, we would go on to lose the likes of Yancey Thigpen, John Jackson, Leon Searcy, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake and, you get the idea.

Let’s now set the time dial to  2002. James Farrior, a former first-round pick of the New York Jets, was a free agent signing by us! I couldn’t believe it. My first reaction was one of suspicion; why would the Jets let him walk? My second reaction was one of disdain; If he had the audacity to ask for #58, he should be cut immediately.  We all know how well that signing worked out.  Farrior played 10 productive seasons for us; more importantly, we didn’t lose him to free agency. In my opinion, this signing and subsequent resigning were the impetus of the mindset that we could become “players” in free agency, to a degree, that we could keep “our own” and that we no longer had to cower at the feet of the free agency monster.

Although we lost some notable free agents since 2002, e.g. Alan Faneca, Jason Gildon, Emmanuel Sanders and Antwaan Randle El, just to name a few, we have been fortunate to keep several of   “our own “.  As was reported on March 7, 2019, via multiple sources, we resigned Ramon Foster, an unrestricted free agent and extended Maurkice Pouncey.  From the Steelers website:

"“The future of the Steelers offensive line is in good hands after the team agreed to terms with center Maurkice Pouncey and guard Ramon Foster on new contracts.Pouncey, who was still under contract, agreed on a new three-year deal, while Foster, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 13, agreed to terms on a two-year deal.”"

Having already locked up David DeCastro And Alejandro Villanueva last year and tendering Matt Filer and BJ Finney this year, Ben should be downright giddy.  We have also secured the services of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, in recent years.

dark. Next. Steelers set to move up in NFL Draft

I can tell you from having lived through the “Dark Ages” of Steelers Free Agency, if this was 1999, not 2019, the entire O-Line would have been gone, taken by the Free Agency monster. Because of the nature of the business that is the NFL, we will lose some key players in the years to come, but we have and will continue to fend off the Free Agency monster by keeping “our own.”