When you look back just to the start of last season and project the starting lineup that the Pittsburgh Steelers can be expected to field when they resume play in September, you’ll see that they’ve undergone quite a bit of change. Certainly more than usual.
With two exceptions—Heath Miller and Le’Veon Bell—the changes to the opening day lineup will be made either due to free agency losses or gains or simply superior play. The two aforementioned players, of course, projected as starters but missed the early portions of last season due to injury.
This series will take a look primarily at the starting positions that will be filled by new faces, replacing the old faces that are now gone—Emmanuel Sanders, Ziggy Hood, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, and Ryan Clark.
Position: Free Safety
2013 Opening Day Starter: Ryan Clark
Projected 2014 Starter: Mike Mitchell
The switch here is pretty clear-cut. Ryan Clark, a celebrated veteran of the Steelers in the past, started trending downward in a significant way last season, the last year on his contract.
He also seemed more focused on life after football than pursuing a furtherance of his football career, and in the process said some things that, if Antonio Brown is any indication, didn’t necessarily go over so well.
Given that he’s in his mid-30s, slowed, and certainly declining, the Steelers opted not to offer him a new contract. Instead, they stepped out of the box, dipping not just their toe, but the whole foot into the free agent pool, coming away with Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell on a five-year deal on the opening day of free agency.
It’s quite rare, of course, that the Steelers use free agency to plug a hole in the starting lineup. Injury exceptions, such as Flozell Adams, occur, but generally, the team has historically built through the draft. Thus, adding Mitchell was a surprising and significant development.
Mitchell, a five-year veteran coming off a strong season replete with splash plays in the form of sacks, interceptions, and forced fumbles, has the size, strength, and most significantly, speed at the back end to help steer the defense back in the right direction.
The signing was also important considering that Troy Polamalu only has a couple years left. Mitchell can serve as a bridge between strong safeties when the future Hall of Famer moves on to his life’s work.
That is assuming, of course, that Mitchell pans out and proves with the Steelers that he wasn’t simply the beneficiary of playing at the back end of one of the best defenses in the league a year ago after treading water with the Oakland Raiders for four seasons.