By Cian Fahey
This time of year is generally pretty quiet in Pittsburgh for football fans, as the Pittsburgh Steelers generally don\’t make too many waves in free agency. They do make waves however, it\’s just, they tend to be tiny ripples opposed to major tsunamis.
While the team is adverse to signing big name free agents, or even averagely sized name free agents, they do have a tendency to fill out their roster with role players and have never been too adverse to a trade or two.
In recent years, the Steelers\’ biggest move in free agency was arguably the signing of Ryan Clark, which wasn\’t a signing at all but a re-signing. Outside of that, the biggest name signed in free agency has been Flozell Adams, who at the time was signed late in the off-season as a replacement for the injured Willie Colon, but even he was an aged veteran well past his prime at the time.
Outside of free agent additions, the Steelers have worked some important trades since Mike Tomlin took over. Most notably, the Steelers traded away Santonio Holmes, but they also acquired Byron Leftwich for a seventh round pick and added Bryant McFadden for a fifth, which came with a sixth round selection two years ago.
This year, another trade for a role player could be on the cards.
The Steelers are in need of a new, proven, running back. Their current running back situation is too insecure and unproven without Rashard Mendenhall. The outlook at the position entering this league year is too vague for a team looking to compete for a Super Bowl again this year.
As was previously reported, the Steelers were supposedly part of a two horse race trying to sign for former San Diego Chargers running/full-back Mike Tolbert, but a visit is not currently scheduled despite those reports.
If the Steelers were to somehow end up signing Tolbert later on in free agency, their running back problems will be solved, if he doesn\’t, then they can directly replace him from a resultant move the Panthers will have to make.
Because of Cam Newton\’s running prowess, Newton ran only 16 times less than Jonathan Stewart last year for third on the rushing stat sheet in Carolina, the Panthers have a need for only two running backs in Carolina. Ron Rivera proved that last year when Mike Goodson didn\’t receive a carry all season long despite a productive 2010 campaign under the previous regime.
As such, if Tolbert chooses the Panthers, then one of the running backs in Carolina will come free. That running back is expected to be Stewart.
Stewart, because he had less carries last season and only has one year left on his rookie contract, is currently filling the role that Tolbert would play in Carolina. Tolbert had 54 receptions in San Diego last year with the Chargers, while Stewart had 47 with the Panthers. Both Stewart and Tolbert essentially played as extended third down backs in pass heavy offenses.
An extended third down back in a pass heavy offense is exactly what the Steelers need. An extended third down back is essentially a third down back who sees more time on the field than is typical for a third down back, ie: doesn\’t just play on third down and is a more than capable runner with the ball.
While it may seem astonishing, Stewart is only 24 years of age despite playing four seasons in the NFL. Stewart\’s one year left in Carolina is actually the final year of his rookie deal.
With that in mind, the cap hit for Stewart cannot be very high. Rotoworld has him at $1.3 million for the year, as does sportrac, even if those aren\’t the most reliable numbers.
Stewart is one of the most talented running backs in the NFL, in the past he has had his injury issues but that is likely a result of entering the league at such a young age. Considering that he is not going to cost the team too much against the cap, or as far as trading for him goes as the running-back market is sure to be considerably weaker than any other position, it is not foolish to think that the Steelers may be a candidate for his signature if Tolbert signs with his old coaches in Carolina.
The question begs, if Stewart is so good then why is the team signing Tolbert?
NFL coaches generally prefer the sure thing over any sort of chance. With Tolbert, they are getting a player who the head coach has worked with for years previously who also has no record of injury issues. Tolbert also could be signed to a long-term deal opposed to Stewart who could walk away in free agency next year.
If any fans should understand the Panthers\’ logic it is Steelers fans as they went through the same situation with Leftwich a few years back. Leftwich left the team for the opportunity to start with Tampa Bay but the Steelers traded for him back once he lost the job because of the familiarity they had with him opposed to signing a different backup quarterback.
With Mendenhall sidelined, there is no doubt that Stewart would be the most talented back on the Steelers roster if the team traded for him. The only question is what represents value in a trade?
In my opinion, considering Brandon Marshall went for two third round picks recently and Holmes went for a fifth rounder when he only had a year left on his deal. Stewart could be had for anything from a fourth round pick to a seventh round selection because he is only a year away from free agency at the running back position.
Would Stewart be worth that? I think so.
You can follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf