Grass Ain’t Always Greener: A Historical Overview Of Steelers’ Free Agency Losses

When it comes to free agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers have very rarely dipped more than a toe in the pool, though they have had quite a bit of success with players ranging from Kevin Greene to Mike Mitchell making significant contributions to the team.

But the Steelers have also had their fair share of players move on from the team to join another, and as you might imagine, their range of results is quite expansive. The team has lost some notable players just this past year in Lawrence Timmons, Markus Wheaton, and Jarvis Jones.

Over the course of the summer leading up to training camp, as suggested by one of our readers, I’m going to be taking a look at the post-Steelers careers of some of the team’s notable free agency departures.

As we go through this journey, you will no doubt spot a few patterns that emerge over the course of time. One of them will be that many players who expected to find that the grass is greener on another pasture were wrong. Many such players ended up coming home back to Pittsburgh to resume their careers.

This has become a phenomenon more prevalent since the uncapped year of 2010, which saw the Steelers reunite with several former talents, among them cornerback Bryant McFadden, for whom they traded to reacquire, and wide receiver Antwaan Randle El.

Byron Leftwich is another player of note, as is Will Allen. Both players already had a long career of varying success playing elsewhere, starting with other teams, before they even set foot in Pittsburgh. Both of them somewhat righted the ship while with the Steelers, enough to land starting opportunities elsewhere.

In both cases, those opportunities flamed out, and within the next year, they found themselves hungry to go back to Pittsburgh. William Gay also followed McFadden’s path to Arizona and rerouted back to Pittsburgh, and he has seen a rejuvenation of his career in his second stint with the team.

Other players spent a couple of years elsewhere before heading back, such as Matt Spaeth and David Johnson, a pair of tight ends, the latter of whom is still currently on the roster. Both of them were full of praise for the Steelers upon their return in a manner that rang with sincerity.

Of course, not every player who left Pittsburgh ended up coming back, or flaming out. As we dig deeper, we will get more into the success stories, among the chief of which being Chad Brown, who spent a decade outside of Pittsburgh. And yet even he wound up back with the Steelers for one year late in his playing days.

I find this to be an exciting exercise, and a trip down memory lane that I’m hoping that others will share in and enjoy as well. We are after all in the dead time of the football calendar, so there is no better time to reflect upon the past than now.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Bradys_Dad

    The one that always got under my skin was Mike Vrabel. Those dang Patriots have a way of turning mediocre players in to significant contributors. Good for him I suppose. The other guy I liked but who got away was John Kuhn. He had a pretty nice career with the Pack as their FB. Good for him too. As you referenced, there really aren’t a lot of players who’ve left that struck it Big Time elsewhere. That should say something about the Steelers’ FO to a degree. I heard a great quote from some radio talking head recently who said that if the Patriots show an interest in one of your players, hold on to them, and if they cast off a player, stay the heck away. Speaks volumes for their FO as well. As much as it pains me to say that.

  • Froggy

    if the Patriots show an interest in one of your players, hold on to them, and if they cast off a player, stay the heck away

    It’s interesting to try to apply that thinking to LeGarrette Blount.

  • Big White

    Chad Brown + Steelers = Beastly

  • MP34

    I hear you on Vrabel. Problem was he was a real tweener, in every sense. He wasn’t a great 3-4 player, but was a versatile one. He was a more of a good 4-3 linebacker, when 6’5 250 OLBs were wanted for sack production. He could put his hand in the dirt, or drop back in coverage. He just wasn’t going to get you a dozen sacks. I did think he excelled in coverage though. It’s funny, Carlos Emmons was a similar player, and he was missed much more when left here, and he fit that style of defense as well.

  • MP34

    Carlos Emmons – I made a comparison to Mike Vrabel below. He was 6’5 and 250, at a time which meant he needed to be a 4-3 end / 3-4 OLB. Not a 4-3 LB, who were mostly 6’1 and 230-ish. The game was evolving at that point, and those guys found the right defenses where they fit.

  • Matt Manzo

    Nickerson is the only one that still stings! We still had a great LB core after he left, but it was hard to watch him do so well in Tampa!

  • Terrible Towlie

    they screwed around with Vrabel too much… first had him as a 3-4 DE, which he wasnt….then to OLB where he started to excel, then let him go
    it was Vrabel who caused the fumble to beat the pats* the last time we beat them in the playoffs

  • SteeltheKing

    The FA that had success outside of Pittsburgh were few and far between. I can think of 7 off the top of my head: Rod Woodson, Hardy Nickerson, Chad Brown, Mike Vrabel, John Kuhn, Alan Faneca, and Willie Williams. I’m reaching on the last two, Faneca had a good year or two for the Jets and Williams followed Brown to the Seahawks before finishing back to the Steelers. You could include Kevin Greene if you want, only reason I did not was he came to the Steelers as a FA, not as a draft pick or UDFA.

    Vrabel left at a time the Steelers had decent depth at OLB. He worked on ST but wasn’t going to crack the starting spot. He had good success with the Pats, but at the time he left I know I wasn’t mad at losing him. I was way more upset with losing Brown and Woodson. I am glad Woodson got his Super Bowl win though, just wish it was with the Black and Gold.

  • Bradys_Dad

    There isn’t much that you can apply to the logic of Blount. From reports, he wasn’t exactly the teammate of choice for either team but he did perform for the Pats and I guess at the end of the day that’s really all that matters. He was a cancer for the Steelers as a Pats cast off and then resurrected himself (from a RB standpoint) to get himself a ring. I do believe that we would have been much better off NOT bringing him in in the first place (DUI with LB notwithstanding). It’s hard to have any regard for a guy that bails on the team mid-game and heads to the locker room to sulk and pack up his things. Desperate teams do desperate things -and this time it worked out fore the Pats. As if they didn’t have enough good fortune – lol.

  • John Mazza

    I always wondered why they let him walk. They did have Porter Gildon and hagaans. maybe they thought they were set at the position

  • John Mazza

    Porter did well after he left but Harrison replaced him so you cant really hate the decison hide sight

  • rystorm06

    emmanuel sanders seems to be doing quite well in denver

  • Matthew Marczi

    Indeed, he would easily be one of their top post-Steelers success stories, especially if you consider players who had a somewhat marginal career with the team only to improve elsewhere. I’m going to try to work my way back in roughly chronological order though, starting with Kelvin Beachum tomorrow.

  • will

    everyone performs well for the Pats…………..could it be the coaching?

  • Patrick Donovan

    Plax Sanders Woodson vrabel

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Larry Foote and Willie Williams also come to mind as Steelers who left but then came back for at leaset a season.

  • capehouse

    Maybe Emmons was missed in the off season, but that was the beginning of Joey Porter as a starter and 10.5 sacks that year.

  • Jaybird

    What about Chad Brown ! Chad and Hardy were two of my favorite players back then , it was a killer to see guys like that go. The 90’s were brutal for us fans , too many good players were allowed to leave.

  • 6 ring circus

    Let’s go way back on those who had success after they left – Preston Pearson.

  • walter

    What about Carnell Lake? Did he have success elsewhere?

  • walter

    Leon Searcy,

  • walter

    Some other guys came back McFadden, Spaeth,

  • Dirt Dawg54

    That’s exactly why. And they didn’t want him to walk. He is on the record as saying he made the move. He didn’t want to be a back up and special teams player. He wanted to start. With Porter, Gildon and Haggans in front of him he wasn’t going to start. NE offered him an opp to start so he went there.

    This isn’t about better coaching or bad personnel decisions as some would like to claim (not referring to you, but others). It was about the depth we had at the time. With hindsight, we could have kept him. But at the time it looked like we were set for some time to come.

  • Dirt Dawg54

    Woodson is the one I always hated seeing go. Steelers thought he was done when he was far from done. Getting a ring with the Ravens was an awful moment for me.

  • Matt Manzo

    Those were the days when we didn’t sign players over 30, no matter how good you were! It WAS brutal!
    Who replaced Brown? I can’t remember! Was it Emmons?

  • Jaybird

    Earl Holmes and Emmons were both drafted the year Chad brown left in 96 . For some reason I think Holmes started , though I may be wrong ,Someone please correct me if I am.
    But Matt, Chad brown was like 26 yrs old when he left ! And I think Hardy was only like 28 when he left . They still had a lot of good football left , and it killed me to see them go. I’m not sure how the league was back then as far as revenue sharing, maybe that had something to do with the Steelers not being able to afford to keep a lot of their stars . but man it killed me when we let those two guys go! Brown probable would have ended up as an all time favorite of mine if he stayed , right behind Woodson.