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Analysis: Bet on Steelers to focus on tight ends in free agent market

| Saturday, March 5, 2016, 8:15 p.m.
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Cardinals tight end Jermaine Gresham runs with the ball past Rams defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks on Oct. 4, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz.

Stop if you have heard this one before: The Steelers aren't going to be overly active during free agency.

Hearing that message for most of February is hardly a surprise, but as March unfolds, chatter turns to speculating which free agents the Steelers should target.

But being free spenders on the free agent market is not how the Steelers have done business, and it won't be how they will conduct business Wednesday when this free agent signing period begins.

It's a philosophy from which the team rarely strays.

When the organization decided to invest in the draft and make it a priority to keep their own players, the lack of big-time free agent signings was a by-product of that strategy.

If a team is going to keep its players and restructure the contracts of younger, productive players to create salary-cap room, something has to give.

The Steelers occasionally have dipped their toes in the free agency waters but only within two guidelines:

• There must be a glaring need at a position.

• And, most of all, the player has to be affordable.

“We want to stay the course as best we can with as many of our own guys,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “And if there's a guy from the outside who makes sense, then we'll plug him in.”

It rarely happens.

Throw out Colbert's first year as GM in 2000 when he added Kimo von Oelhoffen, Rich Tylski and Brent Alexander, and one sees the past 15 free agent signing periods have produced only seven players the Steelers identified as starters: Jeff Hartings (2001), James Farrior ('02), Duce Staley ('04), Ryan Clark ('06), Sean Mahan ('07), Justin Hartwig ('08) and Mike Mitchell ('14).

However, even when they considered the player a priority free agent, the Steelers never overpaid.

All of Colbert's “big-name” free agents were paid $4 million or less per season until Mitchell signed a 5-year, $25 million deal. Farrior ($1.7 million per season), Staley ($2.8M), Clark ($1.75M) and Hartwig ($2M) were all below-market, value signings.

It's not that the Steelers ignore free agency. They are selective.

Last year, they needed a backup running back and signed DeAngelo Williams, who turned out to be quite valuable. He was the Steelers' only off-the-street free agent signing.

The year before that, the Steelers signed five free agents along with Mitchell. The year before, it was four, including William Gay before the start of free agency. The year before that, it was just Leonard Pope.

The Steelers pride themselves on wisely spending their money, and they pride themselves on concealing their salary cap number as much as possible.

Colbert and Art Rooney II said in February that they are in good shape compared to last year. Some websites dedicated to tracking salary cap space listed the Steelers anywhere from $8 million to $10 million under the cap after the NFL announced the number will be set at just over $155 million. But no one knows for sure.

The Steelers have been smart in creating necessary cap space, with restructures and releases, when they felt the need to bring in key free agents.

There is smart money to be spent in free agency this year, and yes, the Steelers might make an offer for someone they could simply plug and play. And, yes, the Steelers need help in the secondary, especially at cornerback. But that's not where the smart money is. For the Steelers, it's at tight end.

Forget the top-level cornerbacks from last year and how much they got paid. Even the mid-level corners cashed in. Buster Skrine signed for $6.25 million per season with the New York Jets. Cary Williams got $6 million from Seattle. Tramon Williams received $7 million from the Browns.

But tight ends are a different story.

Even if the Steelers draft a tight end, a rookie likely won't be ready to step in right away. The Steelers need an experienced, ready-to-play replacement for recently retired Heath Miller, regardless of how quickly Jesse James improves.

Last year, the Broncos signed free agent Owen Daniels for $4 million per year, which is what Miller would have earned this year. There are a handful of available tight ends, similar to Daniels, who can be productive and affordable.

Jermaine Gresham, coming off a 1-year, $2.5 million deal with the Cardinals, is available. He didn't have a stellar year but has potential. One website specializing in the salary cap — Overthecap.com — projects Gresham will sign for around $1.5 million per season. The Steelers typically like to sign free agents for two years, which means a $3 million offer could be enough to lock up Gresham.

There are a handful of other tight ends like that who will hit free agency Wednesday.

The smart money says the Steelers will head in that direction.

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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