The Mike Mitchell signing: Cap compliance is a beautiful thing

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The signing of free safety Mike Mitchell on Tuesday was significant as it filled a major need at free safety for the Steelers. One year after the Steelers watched a few young and productive players depart via free agency--including cornerback Keenan Lewis--it's nice to see Pittsburgh make a major move that, at least on paper, makes it a stronger team heading into 2014.

The great thing about having cap room is you can take someone else's "draft bust" and sign him to a lucrative deal after he comes into his own.

About a year ago at this time, when NFL free agency began, one of the casualties of the Steelers seemingly perpetual problem with salary cap compliance was the loss of cornerback Keenan Lewis. Lewis, a third round draft choice in 2009, signed a five year, $26.3 million deal with New Orleans in a move that frustrated many fans, who were sad to lose a young player that appeared ready to pay dividends just as his rookie contract expired.

Lewis was being fitted for the dreaded "bust" label during his first two years, when he appeared to develop very little, if at all.

But thanks, in large part, to the guidance of new defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, Lewis began to show promise in 2011, filling the role of nickel corner quite nicely for a Steelers defense that finished number one in passing yards allowed.

After being named the No. 2 corner, opposite Ike Taylor in 2012, Lewis, in a contract year, had his breakout season, recording 23 passes defensed and making himself a much sought-after player in free agency.

And that brings me to the news on Tuesday, Day 1 of  2014 NFL free agency, that Pittsburgh did a 180 and got a seemingly fully developed defensive back of its own, signing free safety Mike Mitchell to a five year, $25 million contract.

You lose some. You win some.

Like Lewis, the going was slow for Mitchell, a second round draft pick of the Raiders in 2009 who didn't do much of note in his first four years in the NFL. Maybe he wasn't getting the proper guidance and coaching he needed in Oakland; maybe he just needed time to mature and adjust to professional football after playing his college days at Ohio U, but it wasn't until he signed with the Panthers in 2013 that Mitchell excelled as part of a highly-ranked defense.

On paper, it appears to be the kind of signing the Steelers have been known for over the years when they've actually made serious attempts to improve their roster via free agency.

Players like James Farrior, Jeff Hartings and Ryan Clark come to mind; players who may not have been mega names when they came to Pittsburgh but became significant contributors to Super Bowl-ready (and eventually Super Bowl winning) teams.

Speaking of Clark, like Mitchell, he was 26 when he came to Pittsburgh in 2006. It was a signing that didn't move the needle much because most fans were still feeling the sting of fellow free safety Chris Hope departing for Tennessee via free agency. However, in a highly productive eight seasons, maybe the only thing that kept Clark from being considered a mega-star was the presence of Troy Polamalu, a once in a generation (or three) strong safety who will someday find his likeness in Canton, Ohio.

The move to bring in Mitchell may not be flashy, but it also brings to mind the perhaps cliched and mythical phrase: "The Steeler Way," not used much around here since those aforementioned Super Bowl days.

Like previous offseasons, many cuts and contract restructures had to take place in order to get the team in cap compliance, but at least this time around, the moves paved the way for the Steelers to become stronger and not weaker.

Today, I don't feel as much angst and frustration about the Steelers safety situation as I did about 48 hours ago. And it will be nice to pencil Mitchell's name directly into a starting spot without having to worry about whether or not an unproven rookie has what it takes to assume such a role.

I can get used to this whole being under the cap thing.

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