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Mike Mitchell could become Steelers' latest free agent late-bloomer

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Kevin Colbert has a history of free agents who thrived in Pittsburgh after slow starts, how Mike Mitchell could be the next to do just that in 2015.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The cream always rises to the top, even if it takes a little time to do so.

For Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, this saying has become consistent with some of his most successful free agent acquisitions. It might also be a positive sign for safety Mike Mitchell, who is entering his second year with the Steelers.

Early in his tenure as the Steelers GM, Colbert brought in linebacker James Farrior from the Jets in the 2002 off-season. Farrior enjoyed a solid five-year stint in New York, highlighted by his NFL best 142 total tackles in 2001.

But Farrior didn't have the same impact during his first season in Pittsburgh; he recorded 60 less tackles than the previous year while failing to record a sack, interception or fumble recovery as the Steelers defensive struggled in allowing over 30 points eight times which included both of the team's playoff games that post-season.

Farrior bounced back in 2003, pacing the team with 141 total tackles. In 2004, Farrior solidified his place as one of the best and most complete linebackers in the NFL. In helping guide Pittsburgh to a 15-1 regular season record, Farrior tallied 94 tackles, notched three sacks, recovered and forced three fumbles apiece, and recorded four picks and returned one for a touchdown en route to being named an All-Pro for the first time. Farrior earned another Pro Bowl selection in 2008 while helping the Steelers win a second Super Bowl in four seasons.

In 2006, Colbert signed Ryan Clark, who had spent his first two seasons with the New York Giants before spending the 2004 and '05 seasons in Washington. Clark made little impact in 2006, drawing some of the same criticisms that were directed at Mitchell last season. In 2007, Clark, who carries the sickle cell trait, faced a battle much more serious than football, when he fought for his life after losing his spleen and gall bladder after falling gravely ill after a game in Denver (with the high altitude that night attributing to Clark's sickle cell reaction).

Clark eventually made a strong recovery and was back on the field in 2008. He started 14 games and recorded 87 tackles in helping Pittsburgh's defense ascend to the No.1 unit in the NFL that season. Clark's bone-jarring hit of Ravens running back Willis McGahee created a critical fumble that helped the Steelers defeat Baltimore in the 2008 AFC Championship on their way to a victory in Super Bowl XLIII. In all, Clark would spend eight seasons in Pittsburgh, earning his only Pro Bowl nod in 2008 while teaming up with Troy Polamalu to form one of the best safety units in the NFL.

While he rightfully isn't remembered as well as Farrior or Clark, 2005 free agent signee Cedrick Wilson made his mark in Pittsburgh after his own humble beginnings. After recording just 26 catches and failing to score a touchdown in the '05 regular season, Wilson was a menace for opposing defenses in the post season. He scored the back-breaking touchdown in Pittsburgh's Wild Card win in Cincinnati, and two weeks later caught five passes for 92 yards and a pivotal touchdown in the teams' 34-19 win over the Broncos.

Like Farrior was for the defense in the mid 2000s, that's what free agent center Jeff Hartings was for the Steelers offense during that span. Hartings came in as the Steelers' center starting in 2001. While his impact on the team may not have been truly understood in his first few years, Hartings earned All-Pro honors in 2004 and was a Pro Bowler in '05 while anchoring an offense that piled up over 10,200 total yards (including 4,687 on the ground) in 2004 and 2005 combined as Pittsburgh won a total of 26 regular season games. With Hartings spearheading the offensive line, the Steelers offense averaged over 26 points a game in the '05 playoffs that culminated in a 21-10 victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XL.

The following examples help remind those of us that not all results come instantly. Athletes are human after all, and depending on the player, it might take time for them to adapt to a new city, teammates and schemes. In some cases, the athlete may encounter issues out of his control. For instance, Mitchell struggled with his ability to play with a consistent teammate at safety with Polamalu missing most of large portion of last season with injuries. On top of the fluctuation at  safety, Mitchell suffered a lingering groin injury in training camp which was reported after the season and nearly required offseason surgery. Regardless of why, it's a fact that some free agents take time to adapt to their new team, but, as it's been with the Steelers over the last dozen years, good things have come for those who wait.

Colbert's track record with free agent acquisitions is pretty good, even if it took some of his guys a little time to make an impact. The same could eventually be true for Mitchell, who failed to record an interception and defended just three passes in 2014. But if you go by history, Mitchell should not only rapidly improve in the next several seasons, his good fortunes should mean better seasons-and potentially more Super Bowl trips- for the Steelers.