The Perspective Of An Average Steelers Fan: Whistle While The Steelers Work

Since the free agency period began on March 14th; the Steelers signed two outside free agents – Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett. The only other “new” additions to the roster were re-signing Fitzgerald Toussaint and signing Daniel McCullers to one-year contracts. With the releases of William Gay, Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden; the Steelers now have 65 players (including Ryan Shazier) on their current roster.

Dave Bryan & Alex Kozora briefly discussed how the Steelers could make up the 25 vacancies from the 90-player offseason roster towards the end of this past Friday’s Terrible Podcast. Seven slots are covered by the draft picks. They opined that it would be uncharacteristic for the Steelers to sign 18 undrafted rookie free agents. Even if they contracted ten undrafted rookies; it would leave eight unaccounted roster slots. Perhaps this is a harbinger for of some more transactions in the Steelers future.

Perhaps the Steelers will open some more cap space by restructuring a contract or two and signing more outside free agents. Another alternative could be re-signing one of the ten free agents who were on the Steelers roster last year: C Mike Mathews, DB Greg Ducre, RB Stevan Ridley, WR Justin Hunter, WR Eli Rogers, LB Sean Spence, LB Art Moats, S Robert Golden, CB William Gay or S Mike Mitchell … oh wait, his number was given away. James Harrison is still not re-signed by New England. Is three times a charm?

Yet another possibility is a draft day trade. Dave & Alex mentioned this could be a trade up or trade down to get more draft picks. For this to make sense the transaction would need to net the Steelers a gain in draft picks. Unless, they decide to go onto camp with less than 90 players which is possible but unlikely in my opinion. We may, indeed, see some combination of these alternatives or perhaps a transaction that the average Steelers fan has not anticipated.

There was a lot of grumbling among Steelers fans about the lack of Steelers activity the day free agency began this year. SOS: Same old Steelers. The organization continues to follow tradition unhampered by progress. The signings of Bostic and Burnett muted some of the complaints, but it got me thinking about how the Steelers build their rosters. The notion for average fans like me is that the Steelers build primarily through the draft and develop undrafted rookies like James Harrison. Occasionally the team will sign a free agent like James Farrior to fill a gap in the roster. Trades are anathema to be avoided. Build the team from within. We can afford to rest when other fanbases get excited about potential free agents from other teams.

I took a quick peak at the Steelers franchise encyclopedia contained in the Pro Football Reference to look at several rosters over the years. I decided to go one year prior to the Noll era – 1968. Then looked at the rosters including all players who played during the season and how they were initially acquired by the Steelers within four categories. The easiest to determine were players drafted by the Steelers. Secondly, are players signed as rookie free agents. These two categories are what I would consider internal talent.

Categories 3 & 4 are players signed as outside free agents (released or waived from another team) and players acquired by trade. Modern free agency began after the 1992 season which gave players more freedom of movement.

Beginning in 1968; I looked at the rosters every five years and then the roster for 2017 to see how they were made up. One caveat; in come cases I was not able to determine if an outside player was signed as a free agent or acquired by trade. In those cases, I counted them as an outside free agent.

YEAR Roster* Avg Age Drafted Undrafted FA Outside FA Trade Coach
1968 50 26.4 17 3 25 5 Austin
1973 47 26 29 4 9 5 Noll
1978 48 26.4 38 6 4 0 Noll
1983 54 26.2 46 7 1 0 Noll
1988 53 25.6 35 6 12 0 Noll
1993 56 26.1 38 3 15 0 Cowher
1998 57 27.2 34 2 19 2 Cowher
2003 51 26.9 28 5 17 1 Cowher
2008 60 27.2 29 12 19 0 Tomlin
2013 63 26.8 33 9 19 2 Tomlin
2017 57 26.5 29 6 20 2 Tomlin

*roster as listed by Pro Football Reference includes all players on roster who played at least one game during the regular season.

This is an interesting graphic to me. Clearly you can see that the roster Chuck Noll inherited from his predecessor had most of its players that started their NFL careers with other teams. Only 40% were drafted or signed as undrafted free agent rookies by the Steelers. Within five years Chuck Noll had reversed this trend so that over 70% were players with a Pittsburgh Steelers pedigree.

Steelers rosters filled with home grown talent through the 1970’s and a peak was in 1983 when over 98% of the roster consisted of either drafted players or undrafted rookie free agents:

Modern free agency began after the 1992 season. This gave players more flexibility to move and less control of holding onto players. It may be more than coincidental that the “Emperor”, Chuck Noll retired after the 1992 season. The Steelers have still managed to stockpile their rosters with over 60% home grown players. These next two pie charts compare the rosters from Bill Cowher’s first season as coach to Mike Tomlin’s 2017 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers:

The 2017 roster had 61.4% of the players that started their careers as Steelers. Of the other players; two were acquired by trade – J.J. Wilcox and Vance McDonald. The Steelers under Mike Tomlin do make trades for either players or draft picks. Here is a list of the 21 trades by the Pittsburgh Steelers as listed by the Pro Football Reference:

April 29, 2007: Traded 2007 4th round pick (119th overall, Allen Barbre) and 2007 6th round pick (193rd overall, Mason Crosby) to Packers for 2007 4th round pick (112th overall, Daniel Sepulveda)

September 1, 2007: Traded an undisclosed 2007 draft pick to Falcons for Allen Rossum

April 27, 2008: Traded 2008 4th round pick (123rd overall, Bryan Kehl) to Giants for 2008 4th round pick (130th overall, Tony Hills) and 2008 6th round pick (194th overall, Ryan Mundy)

September 2, 2008: Traded Sean Mahan to Buccaneers for an undisclosed 2008 draft pick

April 25, 2009: Traded 2009 2nd round pick (64th overall, Richard Quinn) and 2009 4th round pick (132nd overall, Seth Olsen) to Broncos for 2009 3rd round pick (79th overall, Kraig Urbik) and 2009 3rd round pick (84th overall, Mike Wallace)

April 12, 2010: Traded Santonio Holmes to Jets for 2010 5th round pick (155th overall subsequently traded)

April 21, 2010: Traded 2010 7th round pick (225th overall subsequently traded, Syd’Quan Thompson) to Buccaneers for Byron Leftwich

April 24, 2010: Traded 2010 5th round pick (155th overall, John Skelton) to Cardinals for Bryant McFadden and 2010 6th round pick (195th overall, Antonio Brown)

No trades for this team in 2011.

April 28, 2012: Traded 2012 4th round pick (119th overall, Keenan Robinson) and 2012 6th round pick (193rd overall, Tom Compton) to Redskins for 2012 4th round pick (109th overall, Alameda Ta’amu)

April 27, 2013: Traded 2014 3rd round pick (83rd overall subsequently traded, Louis Nix) to Browns for 2013 4th round pick (111th overall, Shamarko Thomas)

August 23, 2013: Traded Adrian Robinson to Eagles for Felix Jones

October 2, 2013: Traded a conditional 2014 pick (Not exercised) to Cardinals for Levi Brown

No trades for this team in 2014.

August 1, 2015: Traded 2016 5th round pick (164th overall, Halapoulivaati Vaitai) to Eagles for Brandon Boykin

August 31, 2015: Traded 2016 6th round pick (201st overall, Brandon Allen) to Jaguars for Josh Scobee

September 4, 2015: Traded Brad Wing to Giants for 2016 7th round pick (229th overall, Demarcus Ayers)

September 2, 2016: Traded 2018 6th round pick (202nd overall) to Browns for Justin Gilbert

August 24, 2017: Traded Lucas Crowley to Redskins for Dashaun Phillips

August 29, 2017:  Traded a 2018 fourth-round draft selection to the 49ers for TE Vance McDonald and a 2018 fifth-round draft selection.

September 2, 2017: Traded Sammie Coates and a 2019 7th round pick to Browns for 2018 6th round pick (202nd overall)

September 2, 2017: Traded Ross Cockrell to Giants for 2018 7th round pick (220th overall) (conditional pick)

September 3, 2017: Traded a sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to the Buccaneers for S JJ Wilcox and a seventh-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Only two seasons that the Steelers have not made a trade since 2007. Seems to me that the organization has no problems in either pursuing additional draft picks or players through the trade route. Some of the folks drafted like Josh Scobee failed but can’t recall too many people who were against it at the time.

As mentioned before, there are only 65 players on the current 90-player roster. What are the Steelers going to do between now and the beginning of training camp in mid to late July? While you ponder that; Kevin Colbert and the rest of the Steelers staff are busy at work setting up the fixings for the 2018 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers. You can almost here them Whistle They Work. Maybe they will find some diamonds in the work as they go off to work; and we can all go Heigh Ho!

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