Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell certainly wouldn’t win a popularity contest with fans of the team right now. In fact, since Mitchell was signed to a five-year, $25 million contract on March 11, 2014, it feels like he’s been the annual whipping boy of the fan base since 2015. With the 2018 NFL Draft now right around the corner and the Steelers seemingly crunched for offseason salary cap space, more than just a few fans are clamoring for Mitchell to be a March salary cap causality and for the team to select a free safety type early in the annual college selection process. With that said, there are reasons to think that Mitchell might stick around a little while longer.
For starters, while Mitchell certainly didn’t deserve to go to the Pro Bowl this year, the Steelers currently don’t have anyone behind him on the depth chart that could step right in and replace him. Fellow Steelers safety Robert Golden is merely a backup and special teams player while the other non-starting safety, J.J. Wilcox, is more of a strong safety type and one that might be jettisoned in March in lieu of Mitchell. In case you’re curious, Mitchell is due a base salary of $5 million in 2018 while Wilcox is due a base salary of $3.125 million. In short, Wilcox will likely be well out the door long before Mitchell is.
While the Steelers will likely address the safety position at some point during the 2018 NFL Draft, there’s currently no guarantees as to when they’ll be able to. They can’t bet on a certain one, two or three players they might ultimately like being available in any particular round. Additionally, when is the last time you saw Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert go into any one draft with a very hard need at any one position? Sure, we knew the Steelers would likely draft an outside linebacker, wide receiver and cornerback last year, but ahead of that happening, the team still re-signed outside linebacker James Harrison and outside free agents, cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and wide receiver Justin Hunter, long before the draft took place. Colbert also restricted tendered cornerback Ross Cockrell last offseason and ahead of the draft.
Keeping Mitchell on the roster past the start of the new league year doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll ultimately be on the final 2018 53-man roster, however. If the Steelers draft a potential future starter in the early rounds, that player could ultimately make Mitchell expendable come the end of the preseason. Additionally, there’s still the remote possibility that one of the team’s younger cornerbacks, Cameron Sutton or Brian Allen, might be asked to work during the offseason as a free safety. Allen, by the way, did play some free safety at Utah prior to him moving to cornerback. Once again, there’s been no indication that either of those two cornerbacks will get offseason work at free safety, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see that happen just the same. Even if that does happen, the Steelers can’t go cutting Mitchell with the idea that a potential position switch might pay off.
Could the Steelers ask Mitchell to take a pay cut between now and the start of the new league year? Sure they could and he would have the right to turn that down, which he likely wound. After all, while $5 million per season might seem like a lot to Steelers fans, there are roughly 20 other safeties in the NFL who currently average more a season than Mitchell does. In short, don’t expect Mitchell to take an offseason pay cut.
So, what about signing a free agent safety in March and then dumping Mitchell? Sure, you probably can’t entirely rule out that possibility but with that said, have you seen the list of safeties set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason? It’s not a pretty list and thus any of them worth going after will surely get snatched up quickly for decent money.
In summation, if you’re a Steelers fan hoping that you’ve see Mitchell play his last snap for Pittsburgh, you’ll likely need to hope that the team can ultimately address the free safety position early in this year’s draft and then hope that player can ultimately win the starting job over the course of the offseason. If both of those things happen, or if the unlikely proposition that one of the two young cornerbacks can transition to free safety happens, them perhaps Mitchell could ultimately be jettisoned right before the start of the 2018 regular season.