Ex-Colts executive Polian: Approach free agency with caution

| Saturday, March 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Former Indianapolis Colts executive Bill Polian no doubt is a fan of the way the Steelers do business during free agency.

“Free agency is not free,” said Polian, an ESPN analyst. “It costs you two things you never get back: time and money. When you have a good team and you have a good personnel department that drafts well, it behooves you to be restrained in free agency.”

The Steelers are about as restrained as it gets. And unless they make more significant salary cap adjustments — they're up against the $133 million cap as the Tuesday start of free agency approaches — they likely won't make any splash in the 2014 pool, either.

Hardly a surprise, even though they're thin at receiver, cornerback, inside linebacker and along the defensive line.

Since general manager Kevin Colbert took over in 2000, the Steelers have taken a restrained approach that contrasts to other teams. (The Dolphins, for example, gave former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace a $60 million deal only last year, and now appear to wish they didn't.)

The Steelers' only significant signing for major money was center Sean Mahan ($17 million, five years) in 2007. He lasted one season before the Steelers dealt him back to Tampa Bay and signed Justin Hartwig to replace him.

Since then, the Steelers have given out only one multimillion dollar contract: to linebacker Larry Foote ($9.3 million, three years in 2010). And that deal almost deserves an asterisk. Foote left the Steelers so he could start in hometown Detroit, then returned after a year because he missed playing for a winner.

The only other key starter the Steelers added via free agency since 2006 was safety Ryan Clark, who signed for $7 million over four years. Clark is part of an unusually large group of Steelers free agents. Few, if any, are likely to return.

The Steelers want to bring back slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who caught 10 touchdown passes last season, but the market might dictate whether he returns.

“Free agency, in and of itself, is an overpayment situation,” Polian said. “That's why the union fought so hard to get it.

“Our philosophy (in Indianapolis) was to build from within. The best players are not in free agency. They are tagged and signed. By definition, you're getting a guy that is not somebody else's No. 1, and you are probably overpaying for him.”

That was the case last season with Wallace. Antonio Brown bypassed him to be the Steelers' top receiver, yet Wallace landed the largest contract of any 2013 free agent.

“Fans want you to go out and play fantasy football, but that's the last thing you should be doing because that money, if you miss, is gone and never comes back,” Polian said.

So who might be gone from the Steelers?

They don't appear to be interested, at least until the market is established, in bringing back defensive ends Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood, receiver Emmanuel Sanders or Clark, all of them former starters. They would like to re-sign Fernando Velasco and/or Cody Wallace, both of whom filled in well at center after replacing the injured Maurkice Pouncey.

Long snapper Greg Warren has been with them since 2005, but he makes almost $1 million per year, and the Steelers might decide they can find a more affordable replacement.

They signed long snapper Bryce Davis to a future/reserve contract in January.

Still, the Steelers and Polian seem to agree on how to best manage free agency.

“If your own players are quality players and you believe they can help you win,” Polian said, “it's better off to pay them because they're probably as good or better as you can find in the market.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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