Steelers not limiting themselves in free agency

Mark Kaboly
| Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015, 9:30 p.m.

Pursuing high-end, high-priced free agents isn't the way the Steelers want to build their team.

It never has been, and it likely never will.

However, that doesn't mean the Steelers won't dip their toes into the free agency pool to check the temperature every once in a while.

This might be one of those years.

Free agency kicks off March 10, and the Steelers, historically spectators early in the process, have maneuvered themselves into position to address one of two major defensive needs: cornerback and outside linebacker.

That is, if they choose to do so.

The Steelers have cleared nearly $10 million in cap space by restructuring the contracts of Marcus Gilbert, Mike Mitchell and Maurkice Pouncey. In addition, they can trim as much as $8.75 million more by releasing veterans Troy Polamalu, Cam Thomas, Lance Moore and Brett Keisel before the start of the new league year.

Regardless of what the salary cap will be when it is announced next week — it is expected to be between $140 million-$143 million — the Steelers will have more disposable money to use in free agency than any time in recent memory.

That could indicate the possibility of a significant free agent signing, especially with the unlikelihood the Steelers will use a significant portion of their newfound money to prevent free agent outside linebacker Jason Worilds from hitting the open market.

“My question is, why are they clearing so much cap space now?” one player's agent recently told the Trib.

History would say it's not to sign a big-name unrestricted free agent.

Since the advent of free agency in 1993 (when they made their biggest free-agent splash by signing Kevin Greene), the Steelers haven't used free agency to fill big holes but rather to supplement the whole with a piece or two.

For every James Farrior and Jeff Hartings signed as free agents by general manager Kevin Colbert since joining the Steelers in 2000, there were a share of Keiwan Ratliffs and Leonard Popes, too.

In Colbert's 15 years, the Steelers have signed only seven free agents who went on to start multiple years (Kimo von Oelhoffen, Brent Alexander, Hartings, Farrior, Ryan Clark, Justin Hartwig, Mitchell).

Last year, the Steelers stepped out of their comfort zone and invested $38 million in seven free agents, including $25 million and five years in Mitchell. Two years before that, the Steelers signed only Pope. In 2011, they didn't sign a free agent.

“There were more numbers, I guess, last year than we've done. But we go through those periods every once in a while,” Colbert said. “Occasionally, we'll have a priority free agent like we did with James Farrior, Jeff Hartings.”

This could be one of those years again.

The Steelers are thin in experience at cornerback and outside linebacker. With the uncertainty surrounding Worilds, along with James Harrison and Arthur Moats being free to sign elsewhere, Jarvis Jones is the only linebacker on the roster with experience.

At corner, behind William Gay, the Steelers are hoping Cortez Allen can rebound from a poor season, but Colbert said at the NFL Scouting Combine that Allen has to show he is a NFL-caliber player despite the hefty $26 million contract he signed last year.

While one of those needs likely will be addressed in the draft, two might be asking too much.

Colbert said anything is in play in free agency, within reason.

(Cornerback) would be a position where, sure, you're looking for help,” Colbert said. “Is there one that's available and signable?”

Seattle cornerback Byron Maxwell and Philadelphia rush linebacker Brandon Graham are at the high end of the free agent market and might have a price tag more than the Steelers are willing to spend. That might lead the Steelers back to their comfort zone — young depth free agent signings.

The Steelers were successful in bringing in those kinds of players the past two years. Last year, Brice McCain and Moats were signed to veteran minimum deals. The year before that, Bruce Gradkowski and Matt Spaeth were bargains that provided much-needed depth.

“I kind of like that type of depth,” Colbert said. “It's an experienced, young depth, as opposed to the rookie that has to be thrown in.

“We will certainly be looking at improving the pass rush, the coverage in the secondary, and those go hand-in-hand. But we will look at the free agency part first and move into the draft afterward.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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