Every season there is a Pittsburgh Steelers player that fans absolutely love to hate. William Gay has played this role plenty in the past but Steelers fans seem to have come around and realized he’s virtually the best cornerback on the team. Steve McLendon drew a ton of ire as an “undersized” nose tackle that fans couldn’t wait to replace. Guy Whimper was just a swing offensive lineman but most of Steeler Nation couldn’t wait for the guy to get bounced off the roster. The player that had to be absolutely most hated this year was free agent signing Mike Mitchell.
The signing of Mitchell was initially met with some optimism based on his production with the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers in 2013. Former Steelers safety Ryan Clark had a rough 2013 and Mitchell seemed like a good fit as his replacement. It soon became apparent that Mitchell was the product of a highly productive pass rush and dominant front seven in Carolina.
Mitchell became infamous in 2014 for taking poor angles, missing tackles, drawing penalties and blowing assignments. All four flaws were on full display in the wild card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens. James Harrison and Troy Polamalu have been flag and fine magnets in previous years but their playmaking and game changing ability has made up for it. Mitchell seemed to have very redeeming qualities in 2014. One of the few splash plays it seemed like Mitchell contributed to (a forced fumble in the second Cincinnati Bengals game) turned out to be completely caused by Antwon Blake. Mitchell happened to be in there for a typical late hit.
In terms of production, Mitchell’s first year with the Steelers was not much worse than Clark’s. However, the tale of the tape showed a player who didn’t necessarily suffer from not understanding the system but showed poor tackling form and a propensity to try and make up for it with big hits. Mitchell played similarly with the Panthers but did not have a consistent effective pass rush to assist him in Pittsburgh.
By all rights, Mitchell can be counted as one of the worst higher-priced free agent signings in the Kevin Colbert era. The front office didn’t back up the Brinks truck to sign him but he wasn’t in Pittsburgh on a cheap one or two year deal either.
Steeler fans will not be happy or agreeable with this fact but the truth is Mitchell will likely be back in 2015 and starting. Mitchell has almost a five million dollar cap charge in 2015. The Steelers would only gain a little over a million dollars in cap space by cutting Mitchell and would be stuck with $3.8 million in dead money. The team is still reeling from former Steeler linebacker LaMarr Woodley‘s $8.5 million dead money hit from last offseason. Even if the Steelers designated Mitchell a post-June 1st cut the money saved would not help them in free agency.
Outside of minimal cap savings and fan satisfaction cutting Mitchell doesn’t provide the Steelers with a lot of benefits. They have no apparent in-house replacements for him. If Robert Golden was the guy they wouldn’t have signed Mitchell in the first place. Shamarko Thomas doesn’t really fit at free safety and he might still be the heir apparent to Troy Polamalu at strong safety. Additionally, if Troy hangs it up or the Steelers decide to release him and Ike Taylor really is done, Mitchell may provide a much-needed veteran presence in the secondary.
If Mitchell is gone who replaces him? The Steelers would be forced to look for another veteran safety in free agency or spend a draft pick in the top three rounds on a free safety. There are simply too many holes on the team (defense especially) to spend precious cap dollars and draft capital on a position that Mitchell may still be able to hold down.
In playing devil’s advocate one could say that Mitchell was hampered by a season long groin injury he disclosed to the media following the team’s loss to the Ravens. He also moved from a 4-3 defense with one of the best front fours in the NFL and arguably the best middle linebacker in the league to a 3-4 defense that often takes young players years to learn.
History favors Mitchell staying on the team. Who was the last Steelers defensive free agent with a multi-year deal to get cut after the first year of the deal? Mike Jones, a linebacker signed from the New England Patriots, was signed to a three year, $2.75 million deal in 2001. Kendrell Bell emerged as a force that year and played Jones out of a job. Jones was cut after the season.
Whether you love him or hate him, you had better get used to him in the black and gold. Between the salary cap, team depth, necessity and history there is a better than good chance that #23 will be manning the free safety spot in 2015.