Steelers Rank No. 1 in Key Free Agency Metric: Analyst

Joe Haden and Steven Nelson

Christian Petersen/Getty Images Cornerback Joe Haden #23 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates with cornerback Steven Nelson #22 after an interception against the Arizona Cardinals on December 8, 2019.

On July 21 Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus (PFF) published an enlightening feature titled “Which NFL teams get the most value out of their free agent signings?” Perhaps not surprisingly, the Pittsburgh Steelers fare well in the rankings, which assesses free agent additions made between 2013-21.

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Steelers ‘Very Selective With Their Acquisitions’

“The Steelers have … landed near the top in every component of our analysis — except for their amount of actual cash spending,” writes Spielberger, “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.”

Dive in deeper and one sees that the Steelers are No. 1 in arguably the most important metric: $ per win above replacement generated by FAs (excluding one-year deals and QBs), with the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots the next closest teams in the rankings.

At the same time, the Steelers spent the second-fewest dollars ($205,261, 618) in free agency over the nine-year period in question, with only the Dallas Cowboys having spent less.

What PFF’s analysis shows is that the Steelers are middle of the pack in terms of average percentage of total free agent contract earned at 77.4%, this as compared to the league-best Tampa Bay Buccaneers (83.7%) and league worst Jacksonville Jaguars (68%). Some of that might be a reflection of how former general manager Kevin Colbert would sometimes sign free agents to two-year contracts to spread out the salary cap risk, as was the case with wide receiver Donte Moncrief. And on at least one occasion, a solidly performing free agent acquisition had to be released to realize salary cap savings, namely cornerback Steven Nelson, whose three-year contract was terminated in March 2021, saving the Steelers $8.25 million on a $25.5 million deal.

But perhaps the most interesting chart in PFF’s feature illustrates how the three teams that have traditionally not guaranteed any money beyond the first year of a player’s contract are the three teams with the highest percentage of free agent contract earned (excluding one-year deals). The Green Bay Packers are No. 1 in this metric at 72.4%, the Steelers are No. 2 at 72% and the Cincinnati Bengals are No. 3 at 71.6%.

Those numbers a pretty good argument for helping those teams defend the practice, though the Steelers already broke precedent with the T.J. Watt extension (2021) and Minkah Fitzpatrick extension (2022), though neither was an unrestricted free agent.

Change in G.M., Change in Approach?

As noted by PFF, the Steelers signed free agents only sparingly in the Kevin Colbert era, with the most major signings coming in the secondary, especially at cornerback, with Joe Haden (2017) and the aforementioned Nelson (2019) being the especially notable additions.

But this year the Steelers have signed eight unrestricted free agents, including quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Also added: offensive linemen Mason Cole, James Daniels and Trent Scott ; plus linebackers Myles Jack and Genard Avery, as well as wide receiver Gunner Olszewski, cornerback Levi Wallace and defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi.

Most of the above signings came before new general manager Omar Khan took over for Colbert, but it should be interesting to see if Khan will be more aggressive in free agency, or if the unusually high number of unrestricted free agent additions were mostly a function of the Steelers having more than their typical amount of cap space.

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