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Panthers free agent safety headed to Steelers

| Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 7:15 p.m.

The Steelers' free agent progress often is measured in days or weeks. Going against their patience-is-the-best course policy, they needed only a couple of hours to line up Mike Mitchell as safety Ryan Clark's replacement.

Making an unexpected first-day splash as the NFL free agent signing period began Tuesday, the Steelers reached terms with Mitchell — he announced the move himself — on a reported $25 million, five-year contract that would be the largest for a free agent since general manager Kevin Colbert took over in 2000.

The Steelers also were negotiating Tuesday night to bring back receiver Jerricho Cotchery, according to a source close to Cotchery. Cotchery made 10 touchdown catches last season, and with Emmanuel Sanders leaving, the Steelers want to bring back an experienced and proven receiver.

Mitchell, formerly of the Carolina Panthers, broke the news of his agreement by posting a Twitter message. The Steelers said only that no contract has yet been signed.

“Pittsburgh!!!!!!” Mitchell said in a tweet. “First I have to thank God for this blessing and Mr. Rooney and the Steelers organization for such a good opportunity.”

Clark, a free agent who is leaving the Steelers after playing alongside Troy Polamalu for eight seasons, reacted to the news by tweeting, “Congratulations to Mike Mitchell and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It has been a pleasure to play for one of the best organizations in sports!!”

Mitchell and Clark exchanged Twitter messages, with Clark telling him, “You have the opportunity to play in the greatest football city in the world.”

Mitchell was graded by Pro Football Focus as the 10th-best safety available in free agency, one spot behind Clark.

The 6-foot, 210-pound Mitchell, a surprising second-round pick out of Ohio University by the Oakland Raiders in 2009, had such a poor rookie season that some in the organization wanted to cut him. But late owner Al Davis saved his job, in part because of Mitchell's 4.39 speed in the 40-yard dash, although Mitchell went on to start only nine games in four Raiders seasons.

Mitchell enjoyed a strong season after moving to the Panthers in 2013, finishing with 66 tackles, four interceptions, 3 12 sacks, two forced fumbles and eight passes defended.

For his career, he has seven sacks and six interceptions. He was used infrequently as a pass rusher, a role he is certain to play in Dick LeBeau's defense, yet he had 11 quarterback pressures and four sacks on only 23 pass-rush attempts.

Coincidentally, the Steelers freed up enough cap room to sign Mitchell, in part, when Polamalu agreed to convert much of his previously negotiated 2014 salary — $4.5 million — into a signing bonus.

The Mitchell deal likely means that Shamarko Thomas, acquired when the Steelers traded a third-round pick to Cleveland to draft him in April, will serve another season as an apprentice.

The Steelers' only other news as the NFL year began at 4 p.m. was the official release of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

Unlike a year ago, when receiver Mike Wallace immediately agreed to a $60 million deal with Miami, none of the Steelers' 21 current free agents immediately found a new home on Day 1.

ESPN first reported the terms of Mitchell's contract.

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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