When it became apparent that the Pittsburgh Steelers would likely have enough cap space in 2014 to afford at least a mid-level starter in free agency, speculation quickly turned to what the team could do to acquire secondary help.
Attention mostly turned to the cornerback position, however, and the reports seemed to favor it as well, with rumors that the Steelers had expressed interest in Alterraun Verner, Nolan Caroll, and Captain Munnerlyn.
Free safety is where the team was scheduled to lose a starter, however, and that is indeed the position that they chose to address on the first day of free agency, signing Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell.
Why Mitchell? I suspect he fits the profile of what the Steelers were looking for in their free safety.
For starters, he has good size at 6”, 210 pounds. Equally important, he has excellent speed—which is unsurprising, given that he was drafted by Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft. He reportedly ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at his Pro Day despite pulling up lame in the last five yards.
What the Steelers need most at this point in their evolution is a rangy deep safety that can offer big-play potential and back-end support, and based on his 2013 performance on one of the best defenses in the league, for which he started 14 games, it looks like they may have found what they were looking for.
Although the one primary area of weakness in his game seems to be tackling fundamentals (Pro Football Focus has him at a concerning 18 missed tackles in 2013), he still provides a heavy-hitting enforcer on the back end, so no loss there.
But Mitchell recorded four interceptions last season in addition to forcing two forced fumbles. The last safety for the Steelers to approach that other than Troy Polamalu off the top of my head might be Darren Perry.
Despite some trying to paint him as a vast liability in coverage, his metrics stack up well, being credited for allowing one touchdown while ranking favorably in comparison to other safeties in terms of yards allowed per snap in coverage. As long as he can tackle more efficiently, there shouldn’t be much concern.
And something that surely appeals greatly to Dick LeBeau, Mitchell is an accomplished blitzer from the safety position, which creates a new wrinkle for the veteran defensive coordinator in his exotic blitz packages.
Mitchell recorded three and a half sacks a season ago, and he has seven total in his career. It’s worth noting that he didn’t have much playing time during his first four seasons with the Raiders, having made only nine starts.
A factor a bit less tangible is the fact that he adds more youth to the defensive side of the ball, scheduled only to turn 27 in June.
The belief is that Mitchell is a player on the ascent, with many who cover the Panthers considering him a priority to re-sign. Pairing him with a veteran such as Polamalu can only aid his maturation both on and off the field.
If that’s the case, and what he has to offer during his five-year contract in Pittsburgh is an improvement over what he gave to the Panthers last season, then this signing could turn out to be quite a deal.