Let me start of this post by saying that I will be very surprised if the Pittsburgh Steelers add a big name via free agency this offseason. It just isn\'t something that they normally do and being up against the salary cap this offseason won\'t help change that this offseason. Even experienced smaller name free agent additions would be quite surprising.
With that disclaimer now out of the way, I do think that general manager Kevin Colbert will at least look at players that could contribute immediately if they are bargains, and by bargains I mean cheap. I am sure he does this every offseason, but bargains that can contribute instantly, especially on the defensive side of the ball, are few and far between.
The Steelers haven\'t added a contributing bargain free agents on the defensive side of the ball since they signed safety Ryan Clark in 2006 and linebacker James Farrior back in April of 2002. Farrior was a former first round draft pick of the New York Jets back in 1997 and was allowed to walk free even though he led the team with 145 total tackles in his final season with them. Was it a bargain? The Steelers signed him to a three year, $5.4 million deal that included a $1.7 million signing bonus. His first year cap hit in 2002 was just over $1.091 million.
Farrior would of course go on to play 10 seasons in Pittsburgh and remains the best free agent signing by Colbert to date.
This offseason the Steelers are somewhat in a similar situation at one of their inside linebacker positions that they were facing back in 2002. After the 2001 season they had Kendrell Bell, a second-year player at the time, as the starter at the weak-side spot and question marks at the strong-side spot because Earl Holmes was an unrestricted free agent. There was also no legitimate depth on the roster to speak of. Holmes left via free agency after the Steelers decided to sign Farrior instead and Larry Foote was drafted in the fourth round of the 2002 draft to provide depth.
As I pointed out in my last post, this offseason everything at the inside linebacker position seems to revolve around the health of second year linebacker Sean Spence. Foote is now an unrestricted free agent, as is Brandon Johnson, who played all of two snaps last year on defense after being signed off of the street late last offseason. If there was one position that the Steelers could use a Farrior-type of offseason free agent add, inside linebacker would be it.
When I look at the list of unrestricted free agents this offseason only one name really jumps out at me as a player that could potentially be a bargain and contribute immediately like Farrior did. That player is Minnesota Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson. Henderson played both in the middle and outside last year for the Vikings and is considered a bargain this offseason, mostly because of the way he played while inside.
Below is an excerpt that Pro Football Focus did on him in March of 2012 when Henderson was an unrestricted free agent and I invite you to read the full write up on him here:
Last offseason, the Vikings, firmly up against the cap, decided to let Ben Leber walk in free agency and Erin Henderson wound up with the starting gig. He was lined up as the weakside linebacker, next to his older brother, with Chad Greenway on the strong side, but in the Vikings’ scheme, he played far more like a traditional strong side linebacker, often up at the line of scrimmage and attacking blockers rather than flowing to the football. With E.J. suffering from a knee injury, the Vikings ended up trying to manage his snaps, and Erin found himself with significant time as the middle linebacker in nickel situations, which he had previously come off the field for. He excelled at both jobs. He graded well playing the run (+17.3), in coverage (+2.0), and even rushing the passer (+0.3), also managing to go the entire season without being penalized as he turned in one of the best performances from a 4-3 outside linebacker in the entire league.
Last year Henderson started the season as the Vikings middle linebacker in nickel situations but lost the role to Jasper Brinkley, the Vikings base middle linebacker, after missing two games because of a concussion suffered in Week 2 game against the Indianapolis Colts. Week 16 against the Houston Texans is when Henderson resumed the nickel role and played it well. Even though he played less than 770 snaps in 2012, Henderson, finished fifth on the team with 105 tackles and also had three sacks.
So could Henderson possibly make the conversion quickly to a strong-side inside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 defense the way that Farrior did over a decade ago? It certainly seems possible. How is his football I.Q. and is he a leader type that could possibly call the defense? According to Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams, he can.
"I think Erin’s a natural leader,” Williams said, via Tim Yotter of VikingUpdate.com, "and you want a guy like that on the field to be able to make your calls and get the defense lined up."
I must note that Henderson was suspended for four games in December of 2009 for violating the NFL\'s policy on performance enhancing substances. In an exclusive interview with the Pioneer Press, Henderson claimed that he did nothing wrong and questioned the accuracy of the league\'s testing policy. He told the paper he was prescribed medicines by a "team of doctors" during training camp that year for hives and allergies and insisted that all of it passed the league guidelines and that it was all documented. After suffering a shoulder injury during a preseason game, Henderson said he was prescribed more medication.
"I\'m being punished for doing something I didn\'t do," Henderson said back in 2009. "I never wanted anyone to run my name through the dirt. So for something like this to mess it up is mind-boggling and really frustrating. We believe, in my camp, something mixed or something happened in that process that caused me to have a positive reaction."
Henderson reportedly hired a lawyer and a toxicologist to help him with his appeal, but it was to no avail.
"The money I lost is irrelevant. I\'m not worried about that," Henderson told the paper. "The stigma, and the stress it\'s caused my family — everybody from back home looking at me in a different light and thinking, \'Is Erin really doing this?\' — is way worse than any monetary loss."
The Minnesota paper goes on to say in that 2009 story that Henderson is articulate, and is considering a post-NFL career in broadcasting or public relations. If you have listened to any interviews that he has done over the years you will see that he comes off as a very bright young man.
Now I do not know whether or not Henderson is a player that Colbert will take a long look at it, but he certainly fits the mold of player that could possibly fit in the system and be bargain to boot. If he is being considered this offseason as a free agent addition it will all come down to what he is looking for in the way of guaranteed money and whether or not he can start. The Vikings also are likely to try to retain his services as the aforementioned Brinkley is also an unrestricted free agent. They won\'t likely be able to keep both, however. Henderson\'s brother plays linebacker as well for the Vikings, so that could play into his decision in addition.
Like i said at the very beginning of this post, the Steelers adding starters via free agency isn\'t likely to happen, but Henderson would fall into the category of a remote possibility depending on the health of Spence, whether or not he could transition into the 3-4 and the money it would take to get a deal done.
That\'s about all you will get out of me as far as speculating about potential free agent adds.