Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Free agency has started and all I got was this lousy column

By Dale Lolley
March 12, 2017
Larence Timmons (James Lang-USA TODAY Sports)
It would make a great T-shirt or bumper sticker slogan for Steelers fans: “Free agency has started and all I got was a backup tight end.”
Or a backup quarterback.
Or a long snapper.
You’d think Steelers fans would be accustomed to the way the team does business by now. But no. Each year, as team after team spends millions on what is typically a misguided attempt to upgrade its roster and overcome poor drafting, Steelers fans gnash their teeth about every move.
And yet, all the Steelers have done in the free agency era, which began in 1993 – my first year covering the team - is have just four losing seasons in that time, make four trips to the Super Bowl and win twice.
That tells me they might be approaching things the right way.
So what is the Steelers’ way?
They identify the players on their own roster they’d like to retain and they make every effort to do so. Typically, they do so.
That doesn’t mean they always get it right. But more often than not, injuries have played a factor - Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley.
But you always know your own guys better than those from the outside. And they don’t have to learn a new system, scheme or vernacular.
The Steelers also are very cognizant of not upsetting the structure of their locker room. And by that, I mean pay structure.
For example, they’re not going to jump into the free agent market and pay a defensive player more than current defensive leader Cam Heyward. It upsets the apple cart in the locker room.
They’ll sign guys for the amount they have slotted and not a penny more. Typically, that means waiting for the market to settle a little before they dig in.
So complain about it all you like. But it’s been that way for 25 years and likely will be so for the next 25.
We should be reaching that market settling point early this week.
The Steelers had wanted to add a cornerback in free agency, but considering the going rate was around $10 million per year for average starters, that wasn’t going to happen.
After the opening flurry that has seen A.J. Buye, Logan Ryan, Stephon Gilmore, Prince Amukamara and Dre Kirkpatrick all sign deals for $10-plus million per year, the market should start to come down a little.
But who’s left at the position that’s any good or isn’t over the hill?
Not much.
Morris Claiborne of Dallas is probably the best still available who, at 27, might have some long-term upside. But he was a player who the Cowboys were looking to dump just a couple of years ago before he finally started to play well. But he’s also been injury-prone. He hasn’t played in more than 11 games in each of the past four seasons.
No thanks.
After Clairbone, you’re looking at a lot of guys in their 30s who will be better served retiring than signing another contract.
The Steelers have around $8 million in “mad money” that they can spend on free agents.
But they might want to spend some of that money elsewhere, such as on an experienced backup safety – Lardarius Webb or Jarius Byrd – or inside linebacker – Kevin Minter or Sean Spence – now that Lawrence Timmons has moved on.
Speaking of Timmons, Miami’s decision to guarantee him $11 million of his 2-year, $12-million deal pretty much meant he was out the door.
The Steelers still wanted Timmons back. And $6 million per season wouldn’t have been all that bad.
But guaranteeing that money to a linebacker who will be 31? That wasn’t in the cards.
Plus, the Steelers have Vince Williams waiting in the wings. Williams will bring a physical presence to Pittsburgh’s defense as a hitter.
Where the Steelers will miss Timmons is as a leader - though he was a quiet leader - and in terms of their depth.
Given Ryan Shazier’s injury history - he’s missed seven games the past two seasons since becoming a full-time starter - it would be nice to have an experienced backup there.
The team still has Steven Johnson, L.J. Fort and Tyler Matakevich behind Williams and Shazier, and they have some talent, but another experienced player there might not be a bad thing.
Markus Wheaton got a two-year, $11-million with $5 million guaranteed to sign with Chicago.
I like Wheaton and he’s a nice complimentary receiver. But $5.5 million per season?
The Steelers will reap the benefits of that contract and the one signed by Timmons next season in compensatory picks.

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