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Season Of Change – Free Agent Starters

After two straight seasons of equivalent wins and losses, it’s certainly no surprise that the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been busier and more active than usual in their efforts to reshape a middling roster into a true competitor.

The past few months could be fairly described as a season of change amid the shifting fates of a franchise that had just been to the Super Bowl three times in the very recent past. It may well be that past success that has helped drag them down of late.

Of course, selecting late in the draft annually doesn’t help, nor do the big contracts going out to the players that helped you reach that success. But the true death knell has been an unwillingness to recognize when to let go.

The Steelers had hoped to hold together that championship core for a while longer, but the last two seasons have been the wake-up call necessary to introduce the wave of change that we’ve seen this offseason, designed to steer the organization back in the right direction.

It’s been quite a while since the Steelers have felt the compulsion to turn to free agency as a major ingredient of their roster building plans for an upcoming season, at least when it comes to putting together a starting lineup. The fact is, they haven’t had the money for it in a while.

The team hasn’t sought out a starter in free agency—barring injury emergencies, as was the case with Flozell Adams—in nearly a decade, when they brought in Ryan Clark to replace Chris Hope, a low-profile free agent that ended up developing into a Pro Bowler in time.

The Steelers are hoping their next foray into starter searching goes as well this time around, because it’s Clark that they are replacing.

They dipped their toes into the free agency water on the first day to sign free safety Mike Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract to immediately take the place of Clark, whose contract had expired.

Mitchell’s signing, in fact, was more significant than Clark’s back in 2006. His contract wasn’t a premium one by any means—after all, he was signed to replace a safety commanding a larger contract—but more than that, he was forced to compete with rookie Anthony Smith for that starting job.

If we’re looking for the last time the Steelers specifically targeted a player to plug in immediately as a no-brainer in the starting lineup, we have to go back to Jeff Hartings, who replaced Dermontti Dawson at center and netted a pair of All-Pro nominations during his time with the team and helped earn the Steelers One for the Thumb.

James Farrior, like Clark, was signed to rather modest contract, even if he was expected to take over a starting position, and he too far exceeded expectations. This just goes to further emphasize how rare it is for the Steelers front office to commit high-dollar values to resources that come from outside their organization.

There’s been no shortage of high-value contracts that the front office has handed out to the team’s own free agents, however. That has been their modus operandi, as long as it can be sustained. Reward those who will reward you for years to come, and you won’t have to rely on outside help.

The Steelers felt they could use a bit of outside help this offseason, making Mitchell the team’s most significant signing in over a decade. Cam Thomas, another free agent, is expected to start as well, though he will have competition. It only seemed appropriate in an offseason of uncommon change for an organization typically conservative and predictable in their movements.

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