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Steelers Get ‘Most Bang For Their Buck’ In Free Agency Value, According To PFF

Joe Haden 2020 Ravens

Throughout the Kevin Colbert tenure as the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the black and gold were very rarely fully active in free agency overall.

Of course, names like James Farrior, Jeff Hartings, Ryan Clark, DeAngelo Williams, and James Harrison stick out for the Steelers as free agent signings, but in recent years those could include Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and even Mike Mitchell. That just shows how conservative the Steelers were in free agency, opting to build through the draft and retain their best players, rather than spending freely in free agency.

Turns out, that approach worked more often than not. Though there were certainly free agents flops like Sean Mahan, Ladarius Green, and Donte Moncrief, more times than not the Steelers and Colbert made sound moves on the open market.

According to a study from Pro Football Focus’s Brad Spielberger Thursday morning, the Steelers were the team that got the most bang for their buck in the NFL in signing free agents, at least from the window of the 2013 season through the 2021 season.

In Spielberger’s study that covered the eight seasons, the Steelers’ average percent of total free agent contracts earned — meaning how much the singing earned in cash of the total contract value — sat at 77.4%, which was middle of the pack in the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the highest average percent of contract earned at 83.7%, while the Jacksonville Jaguars had the lowest at 68.0%, meaning the Steelers were much closer to the top of the league than the bottom when it comes to players earning the full value of the contract.

Excluding one-year deals handed out, the Steelers jumped to the second-best average in the league at 72.0% of contracts earned, just .04% behind the Green Bay Packers in first. That’s in large part due to the Steelers not handing out significant guarantees like other teams across the league.

That’s changed in recent years though.

“Up until last offseason, Pittsburgh operated the same way. Steelers edge defender T.J. Watt went through a lengthy contract negotiation in 2021, in large part because of his push to get guaranteed money in the later years of his extension,” Spielberger writes in his study regarding the Steelers and contract guarantees. “Ultimately, Watt’s second- and third-year salaries were fully guaranteed at signing. Following suit, the Steelers agreed to guarantee the second year of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick’s contract in June of this year. However, none of Pittsburgh’s free agent signings secured guarantees outside of their first season.”

Historically, paying out a large portion of a non-one-year contract in free agency has boded well for the Steelers on and off the field, as Pittsburgh had the second lowest total dollars spent on free agents from 2013-21, according to the PFF study, handing out just $205,261,618. A sizable gap existed between the Steelers and the third-lowest in the Seattle Seahawks ($243 million), and the lowest in the Dallas Cowboys ($171.7 million).

That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as the Steelers simply weren’t that active in free agency overall. In recent years the Steelers doled out considerable cash from their own standpoint with the contracts for Green, Haden, Nelson and Mitchell, but the amount of cash in free agency spent by the black and gold still remained rather low, at least based on league standards.

On the field, the return on investment is great for the Steelers, spending the seventh-lowest amount of dollars per WAR generated by free agents from 2013-21 at $37,566,182, putting them behind the Saints, Vikings, Eagles, Buccaneers, Patriots and Bears. Using only multi-year contracts for that same criteria, the Steelers jump to fifth overall at $33,313,195 in cash spent on WAR from free agents.

That’s great return on investment overall, and that includes the likes of Haden, Mitchell and Nelson, to name a few.

“The Steelers have also landed near the top in every component of our analysis — except for their amount of actual cash spending — showing how a homegrown team built on the draft and good development philosophy can also succeed in unrestricted free agency by being very selective with their acquisitions,” Spielberger writes in the study. “The three free agents who earned the most from the Steelers over the span were cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson and safety Mike Mitchell.

“Over a combined eight seasons between the three spent playing on free agent contracts, each generated at least .1 wins above replacement in every season. That’s getting bang for your buck right there.”

That’s exactly what the Steelers have done over the last 22 years with Colbert at the helm. Though they haven’t spent much overall in free agency, when they have decided to jump into the foray and land some key acquisitions, they’ve done so efficiently, from an on-field perspective, and from a cash perspective.

With Colbert headed off into retirement, the onus to continue that stretch of wise decision making in free agency falls to Omar Khan. Good news is Khan spent the last 20 years working under Colbert every day, molding himself in the Steeler Way and the overall team building philosophy the Steelers have employed.

Don’t expect that “bang for their buck” showing in free agency to disappear anytime soon. That could bode well for James Daniels, Mason Cole, Mitch Trubisky, Myles Jack, Levi Wallace, and Larry Ogunjobi — to name a few — in 2022.

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