You may have heard by now that the Pittsburgh Steelers actually managed to get some work done in the free agency department prior to the start of the new league year—that is, specifically, the unrestricted free agency department. This is not exactly something that the team has been known for over the past decade or so—or really ever, that I can recall.
Generally speaking, the Steelers have a simple formula that they have exercised for the majority of their years of relevance. The nucleus of the team is built through the draft, and the long-term success is sustained by retaining these key pieces by signing them to long-term extensions in the year prior to their pending free agency.
The simple fact of the matter is that the Steelers don’t often have many players of high profile that they wish to and can reasonably re-sign hit free agency. Either they will have already gotten a deal done or they will have already realized that they would have to overpay, or pay more than they can afford, to keep them, which is why we don’t see many Jerricho Cotchery incidents.
For the most part, the players who do hit free agency that they would like to re-sign are more low-profile depth players or borderline starters, many of whom could use a rude awakening by getting a feel for their market value or for the climate of other teams.
Yesterday, however, the Steelers re-signed two valuable contributors in wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and safety Robert Golden, doing so ahead of the Wednesday opening of the new league year, and thus the start of free agency. I believe both may have been finalized prior to the opening of the ‘legal tampering’ window as well, though I’m not certain.
Heyward-Bey was a valuable role player last year who was able to step in and play an important part of the offense early in the year. He also developed into a primary gunner and a key piece of the kick coverage unit on special teams.
Golden, entering his fourth season after toiling away on special teams—for which he earned the designation of captain—got some looks on defense, and started three games due to injury, after which many believed he should keep the starting job. That job could be in play this offseason for him now.
As I wrote about just about a month ago, the Steelers getting deals done with their own unrestricted free agents prior to the start of the new league year tends to be the exception rather than the rule, barring the odd one-year contract for a veteran long snapper or so.
Ramon Foster received a three-year contract just before free agency back in 2013, though that was also well within the tampering window. Casey Hampton back in 2010 was able given a new contract fairly early in the proceedings. In 2009, the Steelers actually signed pending restricted free agent Sean McHugh to a three-year contract. Travis Kirschke was re-signed prior to free agency in 2008. And that is about it in the past decade.
The signings of Heyward-Bey and Golden may not exactly be in keeping with the norm, but with the increased cap space and the existence of the new three-day negotiating window, it likely makes it easier to get deals done with players such as these in advance, and is probably the best explanation for why we are seeing them now before free agency hits officially.
Edit: Last season, the Steelers actually got a couple of deals done early as well, re-signing Arthur Moats, who was a veteran-minimum player the year before, to a three-year deal that moved him into the starting lineup. Also re-signed was Matt Spaeth. It’s obvious that with the cap situation improving, and the tampering window giving teams a better sense of early market values, that the team has been more willing and able to make deals with their pending free agents before they officially hit the market—a trend that continued today with the re-signing of William Gay, which, including Greg Warren, brings the total of pending unrestricted free agent re-signings this offseason up to four, a perhaps unparalleled mark in their recent history.