Historically, the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t really get into the free agency frenzy and go crazy spending money on players that they didn’t draft and develop on their own.
When the franchise does venture into the Wild West that is free agency, they tend to go bargain shopping and usually get the most bang for their buck. Sometimes though, they’ll have wild misses, too.
New GM Omar Khan will have his first true test coming up next week as free agency opens and he’s the head man in charge for the Steelers, overseeing everything after spending 20+ years under former GM Kevin Colbert’s wing. We’ll see just how active Khan is on the open market now that he’s in charge.
Before free agency starts though, ESPN found it to be a good time to look back on some of the best signings and whiffs in each team’s history, dating back to the 2018 offseason. That might not seem like much of a sample size overall, but five years is plenty.
ESPN’s Brooke Pryor highlighted center Mason Cole and former tight end Eric Ebron as the Steelers’ best and worst signings in that period.
Cole was, obviously, signed just last offseason, inking a three-year, $15.7 million deal with the Steelers early in the process, leaving the Minnesota Vikings for a starting role in Pittsburgh. Cole stepped into the void at center and was a stalwart for the Steelers as part of a rebuilding offensive line that really found its stride in the second half of the season.
“The Steelers don’t take big swings in free agency, instead opting to lean heavily on drafting and developing their own players. Cole, who signed a three-year, $15.7 million deal last year, can be considered the best of a small crop of outside players signed in free agency because of how he helped the offense transition from Mitch Trubisky to rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett,” Pryor writes regarding Cole being the Steelers’ best free agent signing since 2018. “With his constant presence at center, Cole also helped the line improve as the season progressed and establish a steady run game in the second half of the season.”
Cole was viewed as a leader almost immediately in a young, rebuilding offensive line room. Making the full-time switch to center after spending time as a swing interior offensive lineman in Arizona and Minnesota early in his career, Cole really settled into his role and became a dependable piece for the Steelers.
It is a bit surprising though that Pryor chose Cole over a guy like James Daniels though, who was signed in the same offseason. Daniels was one of the top guards in football last season, especially down the stretch, and was the Steelers’ best lineman overall. Daniels didn’t allow a single sack last season and was the big-ticket item in free agency overall for the franchise, the guy viewed as the key building block up front.
Both were obviously good signings overall, but it was just curious that Cole was the choice over a guy like Daniels.
As for the worst signing since 2018, that distinction fell to Ebron from Pryor’s perspective.
Ebron was signed to a two-year deal on March 29, 2020, after a strong two seasons in Indianapolis, which resurrected his career.
The veteran tight end had a great first season in Pittsburgh, establishing a strong rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but things fell apart in Year 2 for the tight end.
“Because they’re among the least aggressive teams in free agency, the Steelers’ worst signing is also a bit tempered. Ebron signed a two-year, $12 million deal in 2020 to be an addition to Ben Roethlisberger’s offensive playmakers,” Pryor writes regarding the Ebron signing. “Ebron didn’t replicate the Pro Bowl numbers he put up in 2018 with the Colts, instead making 56 catches for 558 yards with five touchdowns in 2021. Plagued by drops and inconsistency in his blocking game, he was quickly eclipsed by 2021 second-round tight end Pat Freiermuth. Not only did Ebron finish his final season in Pittsburgh on IR after sustaining a knee injury scoring his lone touchdown of the year, he finished with 12 catches and 84 yards.”
The first season was really promising. He became that field-stretching tight end the Steelers needed and really put in work in the red zone. But, the Steelers then drafted Pat Freiermuth in the 2021 NFL Draft in the second round in hopes of him becoming the next franchise tight end.
That undoubtedly probably didn’t sit well with Ebron. Eventually, Freiermuth passed Ebron on the depth chart in 2021, leading to his rather disappointing season, which was also affected by injuries.
However, the Ebron signing wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the Ladarius Green signing was at the tight end position.
The fact that the “worst” signing in free agency for the last five years for Pittsburgh involves a tight end who signed for $12 million and turned in 68 catches for 642 yards and five touchdowns in 23 games shows just how smart and calculated the Steelers are when it comes to spending on outside players on the open market.