4 Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agency Week One Takeaways

Free agency began with a bang in Pittsburgh, not a phrase you hear very often, as the Steelers resigned four of their own players and brought in free agent tight end Ladarius Green from the San Diego Chargers.

Regardless of how you cut it, there’s been a lot of activity over the past few days, so were do the Steelers stand? Well, here are 4 quick takeaways from the Steelers first week of free agency.

steelers, free agency, robert golden, william gay, ben roethlisberger

Robert Golden and William Gay will remain with Ben Roethlisberger on the 2016 Steelers. (Photo credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports)

1. The Steelers  are NOT acting out of character.

The Steelers don’t make “splashes” in free agency. That’s true. In 1969 this franchise committed itself to building through the draft and promoting from within. 6 Lombardy trophies prove philosophy works.

But even back when Three Rivers Stadium’s limited revenue constrained Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s free agent budget, Dan Rooney pulled the trigger on big free agent signings.

In the spring of 1993, the sky was falling in Pittsburgh over the free agent defections of former Pro Bowler Tunch Ilkin, former first round pick Aaron Jones, current Pro Bowler Hardy Nickerson, and seemingly budding superstar Jerrol Williams.

The Steelers wanted Williams back, but when they lost him they signed Kevin Greene. The signing wasn’t the lead story on ESPN that night and didn’t get much coverage outside of Pittsburgh, but when Kevin Greene signed his free agent offer, he became the highest paid Pittsburgh Steeler in history.

  • The bottom line will never win the “Off season Lombardi” but have leveraged free agency to find players that helped them win Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

The Steelers pioneered the practice of focusing on resigning your own free agents so inking William Gay, Ramon Foster, Robert Golden and Darrius Heyward-Bey to contracts is par for the course. Making a big, day 1 free agency signing is rare, but the Steelers did something similar just 2 years ago when the signed Mike Mitchell.

2. The Steelers are spending smart, not big.

Signing 5 players certainly lends itself to the appearance of big spending. But the numbers tell a different tale. Per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, the Steelers have only committed themselves to 11.5 million in guaranteed money, or about seven million less than Ben Roethlisberger’s salary cap hit for 2016. Further more, the Steelers have only added about 10 million to their 2016 salary cap.

Looking at the numbers, they almost certainly did. Not a bad business decision for players in their 30’s who’d like another chance to taste Super Bowl glory before they retire. But Ladarius Green’s contract is also team-friend, with only 4.75 million in total guarantees.

Even if Green suffers a catastrophic injury or washes out completely, and the Steelers have to cut him this time next year, his dead money hit will only less than Cortez Allen’s 2016 dead money hit.

3. The Steelers are doubling down on offense.

Even with all of the injuries and suspensions in 2015, the Pittsburgh’s offense was potent. Assuming “The Triplets” stay healthy, putting Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell along side Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, Ladarius Green and Darrius Heyward-Bey, the Steelers offense in 2015 can become lethal.

  • At least that’s what Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are betting heavily on.

No one doubts the potential of the Steelers offense in 2016, and few are disputing the Steelers efforts to resign Ramon Foster, Heyward-Bey and the decision to get Green has been well received. However, Pittsburgh journalist Ken Laird had this to say:

This isn’t just negative nay saying. As the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Joe Starkey points out, only one of the NFL’s top 15 all time scoring offenses has won a Super Bowl. The most recent one, the 2013 Broncos, looked like a juggernaut until they got schooled by a superior defense in the Super Bowl.

The dollars and sense would of salary cap decisions, a tight end of Ladarius Green’s caliber probably gets your more bang for your buck than does a defensive back.

  • But the Steelers depth charts at both safety and cornerback are pretty shallow.

Beyond that, the Steelers have not come to terms with Steve McLendon, which figures to be another cost-benefit, nor did they offer a restricted free agent tender to inside linebacker Terence Garvin.

Like all free agent decisions, these choices are calculated risks. But the Steelers are taking fewer risks with their offensive firepower than they are with their defense.

4. Steelers free agents are getting attention from the rest of the NFL.

Talk can be cheap at this time of year. Every agent’s moral imperative is to convince all 32 NFL teams that the other 31 NFL teams are ready to offer his client a gzailliion dollars at any moment. So take some of these reports with a grain of salt:

  • The Seahawks are talking to Cam Thomas (and Seattle wants to get to a Super Bowl?)
  • The Jets, Bears, Chargers and Titans all would LOVE to sign Will Johnson
  • The all knowing, all seeing Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL Network tells us the Ravens are eyeing Kelvin BeachumBeachum’s name has also been linked to the Jets.

The Steelers are also apparently looking at the Detroit Lion’s defensive end Jason Jones, per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. Take that for what you will. Often times the biggest free agent moves come completely under the radar.

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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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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What to Do about Steelers Restricted Free Agent Terence Garvin?

The Pittsburgh Steelers might not be entering 2016 with the type of high profile free agent class that Steelers Nation was forced to endure in the 1990’s (think Neil O’Donnell, Yancey Thigpen, Chad Brown etc….), but almost without a doubt, the Steelers have some complicated choices in front of them.

Steelers restricted free agent Terence Garvin illustrates just how complicated those choices can get.

Capsule Profile of Terence Garvin’s Career with the Steelers

While its true that OTA’s, minicamp’s and other spring workouts are generally much to do about nothing, Terence Garvin proves that events with real news value really do occur during spring practices.

Terence Garvin’s phone didn’t ring during the 2013 NFL Draft. He didn’t even get a call from then linebacker’s Keith Butler offering him an undrafted rookie free agent contract the day after the draft. But the Steelers did offer him an invitation to rookie mini-camp.

He impressed enough to earn a futures contract that got him a ticket to Latrobe. Garvin did well in Latrobe, and although he did not make the final list of cuts, the Steelers did sign him to their practice squad. But Garvin’s stint on the practice squad was short lived.

Then Matt Spaeth suffered a lisfranc injury during training camp, the Steelers put Spaeth on IR and activated Garvin. Garvin dressed for 15 games in 2013, but for the first half of the year he toiled in obscurity on special teams. However, during the later half of the season, attentive fans noted that number 57 would line up with the defense on third downs, replacing Vince Williams.

Then came the signature moment of Terence Garvin’s Steelers career (available as of 2/26/16):

The Steelers had been all but eliminated from the playoffs, the Cincinnati Bengals still had a shot at securing a bye, but Terence Garvin’s hit on Kevin Huber revealed just how badly the Bengals were unprepared for prime time.

Garvin also got injured in that game, but he seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. Mike Tomlin called him “a big safety” and he seemed to be ahead of Williams when it came to pass coverage. The Steelers then of course went and drafted Ryan Shazier in 1st round of the 2014 NFL Draft and Sean Spence made a full recovery.

Terence Garvin fell off the radar screen of most Steelers fans, but has remained a solid contributor on special teams.

The Case for Steelers Keeping Terence Garvin

With Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Vince Williams the depth of the Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacking corps has been the envy of the NFL for the past two seasons. Garvin has barely been a footnote on that depth chart.

That might make him seem like a luxury, but Sean Spence is due to become a free agent this year and will probably depart for greener pastures and Vince Williams will likely follow the next year.

Those two facts alone, combined with his steady special teams play, make the case for bringing Terence Garvin back to Pittsburgh.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Terence Garvin

The case against bringing Terence Garvin back to Pittsburgh is a pretty weak one, but it would say that if Garvin dressed to play special teams but couldn’t press Spence or Williams for playing time while Ryan Shaizer was nursing injuries, should the Steelers really settle for 5th best?

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Terence Garvin

At the end of the day, the question isn’t really whether the Steelers want Terence Garvin back or not it is whether they offer Garvin a restricted free agent offer. Last year the Steelers offered restricted free agent tenders to Will Johnson, Antwon Blake and Robert Golden even though Golden was seen as little more than a special teams player.

  • Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell has estimated that the Steelers could not tender Garvin and save about $900,000.

There is a predicent for that. The Steelers didn’t tender Stevenson Sylvester in 2013 but still brought Sylvester back. But franchise practice has been to tender restricted free agents, and given future uncertainty at the position, the Steelers will likely do that with Garvin.

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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Larger Lesson Behind Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game vs. 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers 43-18 win over the San Francisco 49ers gave Steelers Nation a lot of positives to chew on. The Steelers offense, down by two of its best players, showed it could be a dominate force. And the Steelers defense showed that it had zero intent on throwing in the towel and calling 2015 a “rebuilding year.”

  • But perhaps the most encouraging sign was Ryan Shazier’s breakout game against the 49ers.

Just how good was Ryan Shazier? How about 15 tackles, 3 of them for losses, a sack a forced fumble, a QB hit and a complete neutralization of Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. But there’s larger lesson that goes beyond Shazier’s statistics.

Shazier’s performance was a potentially transformative, and fully appreciating the importance of Ryan Shazier’s breakout game requires going back to words of wisdom Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell penned a year ago.

Last October, the Steelers were 3-3, licking their wounds after a loss in which the Cleveland Browns were clearly the better team. Wexell seized upon that moment to author “Deja Vu All Over Again” in what was perhaps the best piece on the 2014 Steelers.

In “Deja Vu All Over Again,” Wexell graphically reconstructs the the Steelers 2000 season, building the back story with insights that only a true insider can offer. In a nutshell, Wexell compared Mike Tomlin’s 2012, 2013, and 2014 Steelers to Bill Cowher’s 1998, 1999, and 2000 Steelers.

In Wexell’s eyes, both teams were going through the natural rebuilding growing pains that inflict even the best franchises. Wexell recounts the key decisions made by Bill Cowher and newly arrived Kevin Colbert, enumerating both the brilliant and boneheaded ones, and reminding readers that all of them were controversial at the time. (Wexell also calls out some of the more inane arguments made at the time by certain members of the Pittsburgh media).

The crux of Wexell’s argument is that chief difference between the two eras is that Mike Tomlin benefited from having Ben Roethlisberger calling his signals whereas Cowher was stuck with Kordell Stewart. Wexell’s observations made sense, and Steel Curtain Rising thought to do a detailed, position-by-position breakdown of the Steelers 1998, 1999, and 2000 rosters with their 2012, 2013, and 2014 counterparts.

Alas, there simply wasn’t time.

  • Fortunately, there is time to connect the dots between his final argument, and Shazier’s breakout performance vs. the 49ers.

Wexell concluded this piece with this observation:

Maybe one or two of these current free agents can contribute to a championship the way Von Oelhoffen did, but to tell the truth it’s all melding together in my mind at this point.
I am certain, though, that even in this state of deja vu, I have watched an organization use patience to crawl out of a hole by making one smart decision at a time. And they have no choice but to use that method once again.

The 2014 Steelers of course went 8-2 immediately after Wexell penned that article, but 8-2 seemed like a pipe dream when Pittsburgh was at 3-3. And part of the reason for the turn around, was that the Steelers were already “making one smart decision at a time.”

Today that might seem self-evident, but that was hardly the case on draft day 2014. Going into the 2014 NFL Draft everyone knew the Steelers were going to take a cornerback. The only question seemed to be whether they get a shot at Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, or Calvin Pryor. Were those men absent, (and Gilbert was supposedly the one the Steelers wanted), Pittsburgh would look to wide receiver.

  • Inside linebacker wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen.

Steel Curtain Rising’s 2014 Steelers Draft Need Matrix had cornerback and wide receiver at its top. The Steelers 2014 draft needs at inside linebacker was rated as 7th, citing the presence of Lawrence Timmons, improved play by Vince Williams, potential by Terence Garvin, and the possibility that Sean Spence could rebound.

  • Shazier’s game vs. the 49ers proves that it is a good thing that neither Mike Tomlin nor Kevin Colbert ever read Steel Curtain Rising.

Seriously. Tomlin and Colbert, along with Keith Butler, Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake clearly knew that even in April 2014 inside linebacker was far deeper than defensive back for the Steelers. They also knew they’d be without the services of Jerricho Cotchery and couldn’t have seen enough of Markus Wheaton to be comfortable at WR.

  • In the end, it didn’t matter.
Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

The Steelers brain trust saw a potential super star in Ryan Shaizer and did the same thing they’re Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, and Bill Nunn did in 40 years earlier in the Steelers 1974 Draft when they had two “good” wide receivers in Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin. They saw the chance to grab two great ones in the form of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • And that’s the lesson behind Ryan Shazier’s breakout game vs. the 49ers.

Sure, the Steelers might be in a personnel slump with their secondary. Perhaps Pittsburgh’s playoff chances in 2015 will be limited because of it. But in just his 7th official NFL start, Shaizer showed Steelers Nation that he can be truly great.

And in picking him in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Steelers were simply “making one smart decision at a time” as Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49er’s offense can attest.

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Steelers Designate Jordan Zumwalt Waived/Injured, Former 6th Pick’s NFL Dreams on Hold

Editors Note: The Steelers cut Jordan Zumwalt on August 28th 2016. Click here for that story.

The Pittsburgh Steelers continue to make roster moves as dreams end or at least are put on hold for some this summer at St. Vincents. Yesterday The Turk visited Tajh Boyd and, In what amounts to a surprise move, the Steelers cut 2014 6th round draft pick Jordan Zumwalt, who played linebacker at UCLA.

Jordan Zumwalt’s rookie season got off to a rocky start, as he spent most of the summer watching Steelers practice from the sidelines due to an hip injury. Eventually, the Steelers put Zumwalt on injured reserve.

Still the Steelers were expecting big things from Zumwalt in 2015, and they liked his position flexibility. Although he was drafted and primarily played as an inside linebacker Zumwalt, he also had the potential to move to outside linebacker. However, as Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Gerry Dulac informs, the Steelers didn’t see Zumwalt doing enough to realize his potential.

Pittsburgh coaches haven’t given up on the once-promising UCLA linebacker as the Steelers designate Jordan Zumwalt waived/injured. By doing so, any other NFL team can place a wavier wire claim on Jordan Zumwalt and acquire his rights. If that does not happen, the Steelers will have a choice to make. They can either reach an injury settlement with Zumwalt or they can place Zumwalt on the injured reserve.

  • Given Gerry Dulac’s tweet, its likely that Zumwalt’s time with the Seelers has come to an end.

And if Dulac’s reporting is correct, that would amount to a major disappointment. Inside linebacker is easily the deepest position on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster, with Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier as the two starters, backed up by Sean Spence and Vince Williams, both men who could arguably start on the majority of other NFL teams.

And the Steelers also have Terence Garvin, a special teams standout who was working his way into the Steelers 3rd down offense in 2013 before he got hurt. Given the premium on competition at the positon, one would have thought Zumwalt would have been wise enough to give it his all in practice.

  • Apparently he wasn’t and he didn’t.

To take Zumwalt’s place on the roster the Steelers claimed L.J. Fort off of waivers from the New England Patriots.

Fort entered the NFL in 2012 with the Cleveland Browns, where he made 1 start and intercepted a pass which he returned for 10 yards and recorded a sack. That wasn’t enough to ensure him a spot with the Browns on in the NFL as he sat out 2013. HE did suit up for both the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks in 2014.

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