With all the clamoring for the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign a starter at cornerback or outside linebacker in free agency, one would be more amused watching paint dry, as the free agency frenzy kicked off at 4 p.m. on Friday, not a peep was heard from the team.
With the pass rusher well of free agents drying up, it would seem logical the team would turn their attention to cornerback, where Chris Culliver and possibly even disgruntled Keenan Lewis might be available, with the latter, a former Steeler, seeming like a great fit. Outside linebacker needs attention too, as former Steeler Jason Worilds, who seemed more and more likely to return to the team, announced his retirement Friday night. Traveling back in time to the free agency foray of 2002, the Steelers waited until the beginning of April to make a major move in free agency. Despite waiting so long to do so, it was by far worth the wait, and arguably should go down as one of the greatest free agent signings in NFL history.
When it appeared the team would re-sign starting middle linebacker Earl Holmes, Kevin Colbert and company stunned everyone by signing James Farrior of the New York Jets. The 6-foot-2, 243-pounder was Bill Parcells‘ first round pick in 1997, and would be making the transition from the outside linebacker spot in the Jets’ 4-3 alignment to the inside linebacker spot in the Steelers’ 3-4. He was coming off the heels of an impressive final season with the Jets, where he posted 181 tackles, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and one sack.
“We felt James was the best fit from both the player standpoint as well as a cap standpoint,” said Kevin Colbert, the current general manager who at the time was the Steelers’ director of football operations. “When we had him in for his visit we felt comfortable he could play in this scheme. We wanted to get this thing settled and we tried to get aggressive in that direction.”
They got aggressive and what the Steelers’ got was far more than I think anyone could’ve imagined, even Colbert. After being looked at as a bust in New York, the 5-year vet flourished with Pittsburgh, twice being named All-Pro and Pro Bowl, and capturing two Super Bowl rings along the way. While at times surrounded by fiery teammates like Joey Porter or intimidators like James Harrison, it was clear who the heartbeat of the Steelers’ defense was.
“Our unquestioned leader is James Farrior,” head coach Mike Tomlin said prior to the AFC Championship game in 2011 against Farrior’s former employer, the Jets. “If you polled anybody, player or coach, equipment man or receptionist, they realize he sets the tone for this outfit.”
Tomlin of all people knows what a player Farrior was. The two actually butted heads in their college playing days, when Farrior was at Virginia and Tomlin a wide receiver at William & Mary. When Farrior once picked off an errant pass, none other than Tomlin had the task of slowing him down.
“I tackled him once,” Tomlin said. “Needless to say, something bad happened if I was tackling James Farrior.”
With massive holes at outside linebacker and cornerback, most notably the one left by the vacated Worilds, something needs to be done. But is the replacement already on the roster? According to Pro Football Focus, the freshly resigned Arthur Moats was the 17th-ranked outside linebacker in 2014, over such names as Aldon Smith, Dwight Freeney and Trent Cole. Moats’ season is deserving of more playing time moving forward, as he tallied 4 sacks despite playing just 35 percent of the snaps. But is he starter-worthy? I believe Moats was signed for depth purposes and his special teams skills. With the cupboard of free agent edge rushers almost empty, aside from Brian Orakpo or Derrick Morgan, maybe the most logical thing is to bring back Harrison for one more year, and let a first or second-round rusher learn from him before taking the reigns in ’16.
Perhaps not standing pat like we thought, it was reported that the team inquired about the services of cornerback Darrelle Revis, on maybe offering a hometown discount to the Aliquippa native? He chose to chase the money and go back to the Jets, and will likely enjoy another tumultuous season there next year, with the team’s quarterback situation in disarray.
Money can’t buy happiness though and perhaps Moats said it best when talking about his return to Pittsburgh.
“You don’t want to be somewhere where winning four, five, six games a year is acceptable,” Moats said. “You want to go where they feel like it’s Super Bowl or nothing. That is the feeling here and that is part of why guys like it so much.”
Being held to a standard of excellence should be appealing to free agents potentially signing in Pittsburgh, and although a perennial loser like Oakland or Jacksonville can roll out the red carpet with a Brinks’ truck to boot, the possibility of competing for a championship should outweigh that. Back in ’02, Colbert proved good things come to those who wait. Perhaps something good will happen this time around as well.
“Once I got here, I felt like everything was stable,” Farrior said. “The Rooney Family does a great job of getting people in here to fit within the Steeler mold.”