Discounting their 2014 draft picks and prospective undrafted players, the Pittsburgh Steelers have just 27 players signed past this season.
And six were selected during last year's NFL Draft.
PITTSBURGH -- Shamarko Thomas is among those second-year players signed through 2016, but he isn't the only safety locked up for the future. Starting strong safety Troy Polamalu recently was extended through that season, while newcomer Mike Mitchell was signed in free agency through 2018 and is expected to start at free safety.
So, with three of their top safeties signed for at least the next three seasons, this is a position of strength and security for the Steelers. The other safeties on the roster -- veteran Will Allen, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield -- are signed just through this season. They add to the position's depth.
Mitchell could be considered at the moment to be the Steelers' top free-agent signing this spring. Sure, others could turn out to be more valuable for filling roles or after they have a big season, but Mitchell can tighten a secondary that sagged with sub-par seasons turned in by cornerback Ike Taylor and departing safety Ryan Clark. Mitchell, among the club's youth movement in free agency, also could help Polamalu find the found of youth.
If that happens, as the Steelers believe, Mitchell will be worth every penny of the five-year, $25 million contract he received with a signing bonus at $4.75 million. But why so much optimism? He has good size, at 6-feet, 210 pounds, and appears to be ready to break out in his sixth NFL season. After four so-so seasons in Oakland as a backup with the sorry Raiders, Mitchell flourished as a starter in the stingy Carolina Panthers defense with 3.5 sacks, eight pass breakups, four interceptions and two forced fumbles, as well as 50 solo tackles.
As a responsible safety, able to solidify the back end of the defense, Mitchell could make Polamalu more effective. Polamalu played all 16 games last season, the second time since 2011, but he was not healthy at the end of that season. Last year, Polamalu entered the offseason healthy and could have a big year with Mitchell and better cornerback play around him.
That's why the Steelers signed Polamalu to a three-year, $20 million contract last month that basically was a two-year extension, but it also lowered his lofty cap number for this year. He was supposed to count nearly $11 million toward the cap this year, but now -- with $7 million guaranteed -- his salary is just $1.25 million this year, $6 million next year and $5.75 million in 2016. So, the cap hit this year is less than $4 million.
Thomas signed a four-year, $2,613,152 contract as a rookie last year. The deal included a $453,152 signing bonus. He will make $495,000 this year, $585,000 next year and $675,000 in 2016. Thomas' development could be a key to the team's future at the safety position. Like all his former rookie classmates, Thomas needs to step up in his second NFL season.
Allen, a key veteran backup, re-signed for just this year at $955,000. Golden has signed a three-year, $1.44 million contract in 2012, so there is just this year remaining at $570,000. Then, he will be a restricted free agent. Dangerfield has a one-year agreement for $420,000 this year, and he will become an exclusive rights free agent for next season.