If you follow the Pittsburgh Steelers closely, you know that free agent signings outside of their own is a pretty rare occurrence. They are usually not big named players when they happen and often times they come at a very low cost. On Tuesday the Steelers signed their first free agent of the offseason in the form of tight end Leonard Pope, and as you can imagine, he is the talk of the day around Steeler Nation.
The Pope signing is an obvious match as he played under Steelers new offensive coordinator Todd Haley for five of his six years in the league since being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the 3rd round of the 2006 draft. Pope spent his first three seasons in Arizona and his last three with the Kansas City Chiefs, where Haley was the head coach. He obviously knows what Haley expects and will surely know the basis of whatever offense that is installed in Pittsburgh.
So what does the Pope signing mean going forward?
We need to start off with the depth of the tight end position prior to Pope signing. As far as true tight ends go, the Steelers only had Heath Miller and Wesyle Saunders under contract. David Johnson, who should really be considered an h-back/fullback, is a restricted free agent that has yet to sign his tender. That should take place any day now, but he is indeed not a true tight end. Will Johnson and Jamie McCoy have also been signed to the offseason roster, and like D.J., both are regarded more as h-back types and not true tight ends. While the Steelers list Wes Lyons as a tight end on their offseason roster, he really is a square peg in a round hole. Like McCoy, he was with the Steelers last year in training camp and only received limited snaps late in preseason games. So basically the Steelers had just Miller and Saunders to be realistic heading into Tuesday.
Saunders, as many of you should know by now, will be suspended the first four games of the season for testing positive for a banned substance. Should the Steelers indeed decide to keep him this year, he will not count against the 53 man roster for the first four weeks as he will be placed on the reserve/suspended list. He will count against the salary cap however, but that charge is only $465,000 this season and when you break it down by weeks it is miniscule. Missing a quarter of the season due to suspension is never a good thing for a second year player who went undrafted though, especially when there is a new offensive coordinator and a subsequent new offense being installed. Saunders will get snaps in OTA sessions and preseason, but then must sit once the season starts. So basically heading into Tuesday the Steelers only had one tight end in Miller to start the season with, so the signing of Pope was not surprising when you look at it that way.
Next up is the money. Now I will not know for a few days what the official contract numbers for Pope are, but I am willing to bet it was a one-year deal worth $765,000. That amount includes a $65,000 signing bonus which would make it a qualifying contract for a veteran. If that indeed turns out to be the numbers, it would mean that Pope would only count $605,000 against the 2012 salary cap if he makes the roster. That one year deal is not guaranteed so Pope could be cut at any time and the dead money hit would be the $65,000 signing bonus. His signing also barely moves the needle as far as the Steelers salary cap goes as he would displace the lowest cap hit on the top 51 right now of $390,000. That means that the signing of Pope likely only used up an additional $215,000 of cap space. We will know for sure when the contract numbers are released by the NFLPA in a few days, but I bet I am close. So basically Pope was a no risk signing as far as contract and salary cap space goes.
So what does the signing of Pope mean for the Steelers heading into the draft? Zero, zilch and nada. The Steelers, in my honest opinion, will draft another tight end later this month. Will it be an early selection like Coby Fleener? Will it be a mid round selection like Michael Egnew, who just so happened to make a pre draft visit to the Pittsburgh on Tuesday? Or will it be a late round camp body type? We will know for sure in just over two weeks, but at least Pope provides some layer of insurance should they come away from the draft empty handed. Remember that they only likely have $65,000 tied up in Pope right now and his signing this close to the draft is a very inexpensive smoke screen. Ok, that last sentence was typed while wearing my tin foil hat, but it is plausible when you think long and hard about it.
Lastly let\’s look at what Pope brings to the table. Despite his 6 foot 8 inch size, he is not a very good blocker. He plays too high for starters and has graded out horrible in the blocking department the last two seasons according to Pro Football Focus. PFF also let us know today via Twitter that Pope has been targeted 77 times over the course of the last three seasons and he dropped 10 of those passes. He had 4 drops alone just last season. Pope is also a liability in the penalty department as well. In 2011 he was penalized 10 times in total and that tied him for the Chiefs team lead with tackle Branden Albert. 4 of those 10 penalties were for holding while 3 more were for false starts. 6 of those 10 penalties were responsible for stalling Chiefs drives in addition. The difference between Pope and Albert is that Pope played just over 600 offensive snaps while Albert played just over 1070. It is no wonder that Pope was sitting on the street unsigned.
So basically there was nothing to lose by signing Pope on Tuesday and he offers nothing but upside when you look at the big picture. With all that I have presented to you in this post, you can see that he in no way should be considered a lock to make the 53 man roster at this point. Right now Pope is the 2012 version of John Gilmore, who the Steelers signed to compete in camp last year. Gilmore did not make the final cut to 53, and if I had to lay down a bet right now on Pope, I would bet that he doesn\’t either. Time, as they say, will tell.