It truly was March Madness in Steeler Nation.
Almost like a buzzer-beater that inspired the month's nickname, the Steelers, an 8-8 seed, were throwing some weight into the free agency fight.
The uncharacteristically signed a player on the first day of free agency, ex-Panthers safety Mike Mitchell, to a five-year, $25 million contract. Not long after that came the acquisition of ex-Chargers defensive lineman Cam Thomas. Ex-Saints wide receiver Lance Moore would follow, along with ex-Bills linebacker Arthur Moats, ex-Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount and ex-Colts receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. Mix in cornerback Brice McCain, punter Adam Podlesh, and the Steelers made, relatively speaking, a sizable effort in bringing in new bodies to help bolster a team plagued in mediocrity.
The talent of this team was there all along, though.
Mitchell reportedly played injured most of the season and didn't provide much of a boost at a sagging free safety position in Pittsburgh the last few years. Thomas ended up being arguably the worst defensive lineman in the NFL, and likely won't see the second year of the two-year deal he signed. Moore's highlight was a rumored spat with head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and ended up being a healthy scratch in the team's playoff game.
Podlesh never donned a Steelers uniform, unable to join the team after his wife encountered medical issues related to the birth of the couple's child. Heyward-Bey contributed on special teams, nothing else.
There's no sense in re-hashing Blount's career in Pittsburgh, but it's fair to say it wasn't the best move the team made all year.
McCain and Moats were probably the two best signings based on their results in 2014. McCain would eventually take over Cortez Allen's starting role, and should be considered a priority signing before he hits free agency. Same for Moats, who could find himself a starter at left outside linebacker with the pending departure of Jason Worilds.
While Mitchell's deal was the only one with significant money tied to it, the class itself can be considered a miss. The majority of players signed one or two year deals for at or slightly above league minimum, but the transactions themselves were rare for an organization that has prided itself on depth of replacements.
They will face many of the same challenges in 2015 but likely won't be spending much time in free agency. Depth will have to be established, but internally this time. McCain and Moats will likely be the internal free agents they keep, with Worilds being the latest starter to leave for greener pastures.
It would seem safety Troy Polamalu is done in Pittsburgh, with a post-June 1 release saving the team $6 million in 2015 (with $2.25 million dead this year and next year). Add in the expected extension for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which likely won't save much more than a million or two on this year's cap, and the team will save roughly enough to sign its draft class.
Other possible moves, such as the release of Brett Keisel ($1.5 million savings) and Moore ($1.5 million savings) clear up a little more space, but not really much after displacement - signing a player to replace the one released. Releases of Steve McLendon ($2.25 million savings) or Ramon Foster ($1.85 million savings), along with drafted or veteran minimum replacements would again save a little bit not enough to see the team digging into the market the way they did in 2014.
Their estimated cap space after assuming Polamalu's release or retirement and a general outline of a deal for Roethlisberger, based on a cap of $140 million, won't create much room for any significant signing, especially not after hypothetical low-end deals for McCain and Moats.