PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers started free agency strapped for cash (around $6.5 million in cap space) but looking to improve. While most of their needs were met on offense, the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier to a spinal injury and the release of safety Mike Mitchell created two glaring holes that only one first-round pick can solve.
Two weeks later, as Steelers officials rolled through the halls of the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes in Orlando, Florida, for the NFL owners meetings, they were satisfied with the additions of linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Morgan Burnett and teasing more moves thanks to more than $3 million in leftover space.
“I wouldn’t say we’re done with free agency, because stuff changes,” said general manager Kevin Colbert, citing the need to be ready if talented players become available via release.
Here’s how the Steelers filled out their defense with minimal money:
Patience in linebacker/safety markets: The Steelers showed interest in many free-agent inside linebackers early in the process, including Denver’s Todd Davis and Cincinnati’s Preston Brown. But as several linebackers earned deals worth $5 million to $9 million per year, some of whom are considered two-down players, the Steelers decided they couldn’t spend that much.
Enter Bostic, who wasn’t a splashy free agent because of injuries and mostly backup production in his first three seasons. But getting a player fresh off a 97-tackle season for two years and $4 million made sense to the Steelers.
Once they secured Bostic, they circled back with Burnett, whom they had called the week before. Tyrann Mathieu‘s signing for one year and $7 million with the Houston Texans signaled a weak safety market. The Steelers took advantage.
“We just let it play out,” Colbert said about their free-agency approach. “We knew when we looked at the market we knew that we were only going to be able to do certain things within our own limitations, again, after we made the reductions on our own roster. So as the market unfolds we reacted to it and we were happy to get Burnett and John Bostic from the picks.”
Sensible contracts: Burnett’s $14.35 million deal over three years seems hefty for a cash-strapped team, but the structure of the contract works for Pittsburgh. The signing bonus of $4.25 million spread over three years, coupled with a $1 million base salary in Year 1, equals a modest $2.416 million cap hit in 2018. That leaves nearly $10 million of salary on the final two years, but those are not guaranteed.
Add Bostic’s $1.5 million cap hit and the Steelers just got two starters for less than $4 million this year.
“We obviously had to make some cap adjustments to get in compliance, and in doing that we had to look at all alternatives,” Colbert said. “Fortunately, there was a guy available to us we felt was a good alternative, and Morgan Burnett, he was affordable. And again, we were able to get the deal done with both sides being agreeable.”
No star power, but flexibility: For a team not spending big, the best course is getting positional options in the second wave of free agency. The Steelers typically prefer this process, knowing they can walk away from any deal after Year 1 with minimal recourse.
But Burnett was one of the top safeties available because of his hybrid ability. He can play slot corner, dime linebacker or both safety spots. Bostic might have lost a step but has adequate speed (4.61 40 at the 2013 combine). He should be able to help cover running backs in the flat.
“They’re capable veteran players who are solid guys, guys that we had knowledge of in terms of how they entered the league,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We researched those guys when they came into the league, so it made the research of them in the free-agency market a less daunting task. So, we’re excited about having those guys. We’re excited to get them in, but we’re also excited about the experience and expertise that they’re going to bring as well.”