The Pittsburgh Steelers handle free agency in a very traditional and conservative manner. Despite all the calls from the fanbase to open up the check book and start handing out contracts like candy, the Steelers very rarely make any splash signings in free agency. Over the past couple of years though, the Steelers have eased up and made a few splash signings, though majority of them only serve as a reminder as to why splash signings can be so dangerous.
The Steelers have made three splash signings in free agency over the last five years. Mike Mitchell’s five year, $25 million deal in 2014 was the first big and only valuable signing. Since then, it has been disaster. The team signed tight end Ladarius Green to a four-year, $20 million deal in 2016. Green played just six games with the Steelers, a far cry from the four years the team expected him to stay for. Like Green, the Steelers are on the verge of another free agent bust with safety Morgan Burnett, who the team signed to a three-year, $14.35 million dollar deal last offseason. After just one season, the Steelers will cut ties with Burnett, aiming to cut him or trade him by April 1st.
Burnett and Green are reminders are to why building through free agency usually is not the answer, though the Steelers could have been more cautious considering the injury history of both players. Over the last four seasons, Burnett has missed almost a season’s worth of games (15 games). Green’s history with concussions was even more concerning, as the tight end missed 15 games over his final three seasons. Despite their documented medical risks, nothing compares to their lone season in Pittsburgh as the wheels fell off for both Green and Burnett.
Burnett set a new career low in defensive snaps during his first and only season as a Steelers, playing just 389 defensive snaps. The veteran safety’s 389 defensive snaps were a steep decline from the 725 defensive snaps he played during his final season with the Green Bay Packers. Burnett was on the field for just 55% of the Steelers’ defense snaps too as his injuries led to him falling behind Sean Davis and rookie Terrell Edmunds in the pecking order. Before the 2018 season, Burnett had never played fewer than 91% of his team’s defensive snaps in a season. Even when Burnett took the field, he was hardly noticeable, minus a few pass breakups down the stretch. He recorded just 30 tackles, six pass defenses and zero interceptions.
While Green may have had more of a significant impact than Burnett during his brief stop in Pittsburgh, he struggled mightily to stay on the field. The former Steelers’ tight end played just six games and was on the field for just 140 offensive snaps. The devil’s advocate could argue that the Steelers should have seen Green’s absence coming as the tight end failed to exceed 33% of his team’s offensive snaps during three of his four seasons in San Diego. Green produced 18 receptions for 304 yards and one touchdown during his lone season in Pittsburgh, showing flashes of being the tight end the Steelers needed, though eventually he crumbled to his concussion issues.
Both Burnett and Green were supposed to be big pieces that would help solidify the Steelers atop the NFL’s hierarchy. Green was signed to replace the retiring Heath Miller and give the Steelers another weapon besides Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Unfortunately, Green looks to have joined Miller in retirement as he has not played since the end of the 2016 season. Burnett was signed to be the defense’s ‘dimebacker’ – a player who could be a three down player and matchup weapon. Instead Burnett ended up being a role player and not one worth the contract he received.
The duo of Burnett and Green should serve as a reminder of the risks associated with doing lucrative business in free agency. Often times, teams are negotiating and usually overpaying for a player that either has injury concerns or is already past their prime or both.