Does Suspense Surround Steelers Free Agent Sean Spence Future in Pittsburgh?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are an organization that thinks long term. The last time the Steelers fired a coach, Richard Nixon was known as “President-elect.” So when the Steelers don’t or are unable to offer a draft pick a second contract something has not gone according to plan.

  • Sometimes a player hasn’t panned out (think Ziggy Hood)
  • Other times rival NFL teams are going to grossly overpay (think Mike Wallace)
  • In some cases, circumstances such as the salary cap, simply don’t allow it (think Keenan Lewis)

In other words, when the Steelers don’t try to offer a draft pick a second contract, you can chalk it up as a tacit admission of a mistake…. Then there’s the case of inside linebacker Sean Spence.

Capsule Profile of Sean Spence’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted Sean Spence in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing both recently departed James Farrior and aging Larry Foote. During training camp and in preseason it looked like Spence was that player until he suffered a devastating knee injury.

It was a brutal injury. Sean Spence’s NFL career might have been over before it began. The Steelers put him in IR. When the 2013 NFL Draft arrived conflicting reports out of the South Side swirled as to Sean Spence’s fate. Keith Butler said it would be a miracle if Spence played again. Mike Tomlin was more optimistic.

The Steelers kept Spence on the roster, but heged their bets by drafting Vince Williams in the 6th round that year.

Spence spent training camp and the beginning of the season on the PUP list. The Steelers moved to activate him, but Spence got injured in practice. Early in the 2014 off season Kevin Colbert said the Steelers saw something, even in that limited capacity, that justified keeping Spence on the payroll.

They’d also seen Terence Garvin grow from a guy who earned an invite to rookie minicamp on a tryout basis to someone who began pushing for playing time on third down by the end of the season. Skeptics can be forgiven for wondering if Kevin Colbert’s praise of Spence wasn’t “Just being nice.”

While that was news, as Mike Tomlin was breaking form big time, the other news was that Sean Spence was participating fully – and looking good.

Sean Spence earned a roster spot, and went into the season as the Steelers top backup behind Shazier and it wasn’t long before his number was called as Ryan Shazier was injured in the third game of the season, all told, Sean Spence started 8 games for the Steelers in 2014 where he:

Spence, splitting time with Vince Williams, kept Ryan Shazier on the bench when he returned to health, although Shazier would reclaim his starting spot in 2015. Spence, however remained the “next man up” and started 4 games while Shazier was injured.

The Case for Steelers Keeping Sean Spence

In pure football terms, there is no reason why you wouldn’t want to keep Sean Spence. Indeed, had the injury never occurred, there is every reason to think that he would be soon signing a four or five year deal that would cement him as the long term starter in the mold of Lawrence Timmons.

Sean Spence has provided valuable depth to the Steelers at a key position, and is starter capable. In that sense, he would fit the mold of a young Larry Foote, who left Pittsburgh as a starter, but returned after one year in Detroit to willingly serve as a backup to Farrior and Timmons.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Sean Spence

The case against keeping Spence is one of salary cap dollars and salary cap sense. In pure football terms, you WANT a guy like Sean Spence on your team.

And, had he been drafted in the 1970’s, he’d have been a figure like John Banazack or Steve Furness, who were starter capable but spent the early portions of their careers backing up Ernie Holmes and Dwight White.

  • But this isn’t the 70’s anymore.

And if Dan Rooney was no fan of bringing free agency into the NFL, even he admitted that players who were backups and deserved a shot as starters should get the chance via free agency. Sean Spence is the perfect example. He’s shown he can start in the NFL, and deserves the chance to do so, but unfortunately there’s no space for him to do this inside Pittsburgh.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Sean Spence

Winning in the salary cap era comes down to getting the most bang for your buck out of a player. Given the Steelers still have Vince Williams under contract for a year and presumably will have restricted free agent Terence Garvin back, its hard to justify the Steelers paying Sean Spence what they would have to pay him to keep him in Pittsburgh, even if Spence did give the Steelers a generous home town discount.

Now should Spence fail to get offers from the rest of the NFL then the Steelers can talk about bringing him back at a bargain rate.

  • There’s also one X-Factor in play: Lawrence Timmons. Timmons is turning 30 and he has a very large salary cap number.

The Steelers will not cut Timmons due to the dead money hit they’d owe because of him, but there’s no certainly he’s in their long-term plans. If the Steelers do make a serious, multi-year offer to Sean Spence, then expect 2016 to be Timmons final year in Pittsburgh.

But the more likely scenario will be for the Steelers to extend Timmons’ contract, gain salary cap space, and allow Sean Spence to find his starting spot elsewhere.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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