The Steelers were hit badly by the salary cap when it was first introduced to the league, and the years that followed. Arguably the league's best scouting department uncovered a treasure trove of talent throughout the draft in the early 1990s, it would set the team up for a run of success in that decade.
Contract issues and cap compliance hit them hard by the end of the decade, and the Kordell Stewart/Blitzburgh Era of the team ended in several "almost made it" seasons.
The spirit of the franchise was based in the now cliche "Next Man Up" philosophy. Not due to injuries, mind you, but because of financial constraints. Not every player could be kept but the team had a knack of releasing certain players because of the faith they had in the replacement. Free agency was used here and there, but the team worked to develop a core group of players with the big-money, long-term contracts, and fill in the rest with younger players and inexpensive free agents.
That philosophy carried them through the 2000s, where, after washing through the remnants of a bad end to the 90s, went on a run from 2001-2008 that saw two Super Bowl championships and five division championships. Along with adding the best passer in franchise history via the draft, the team added scores of high-level players in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft and even undrafted free agency.
The peak turned back to valley after one last Super Bowl run in 2010, their last playoff win coming after that season. It appears, after a somewhat unexpected 11-5 season and a division championship, the peak is rising again. The cupboards, once bare, are now holding a few potential gems and steals from the draft and free agency.
Perhaps the best example of that is rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant. A fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, an athletic monster who is much closer to the first round than the last in terms of potential. He's a project, but he was given motivation to reach his incredibly high ceiling.
"Coach Tomlin had told me that he wanted me to dominate on scout team before he would give me a hat [a chance to play]," Bryant told ESPN's Jeffri Chadiha. "Once he gave me the opportunity, I told him that I wasn't going back there."
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It's disheartening to think of the Steelers' offense without Bryant now. The Steelers are 8-2 since Bryant came into the lineup in Week 7, and the Steelers' offense has averaged 31.2 points a game in the 10 games he's played. Named the Steelers' Rookie of the Year, Bryant's 21.1 yards per catch average is the highest of any player with five or more catches in the NFL.
The Steelers have lost a few more players in recent years than what is normal for them. A combination of mid-round picks not working out as well as the ones that do leaving for greener pastures left the team on a downswing in terms of the ability to retool their roster. They were more active in free agency than usual this offseason, signing free safety Mike Mitchell to a largely non-guaranteed $25 million deal over five years. Defensive end Cam Thomas was brought in as well, mostly to unspectacular results. Wide receiver Lance Moore joined the team, as did running back LeGarrette Blount. Mitchell may end up the only one of those players to return next season (Blount is already gone). Some of that is due to underperformance (Thomas), some to circumstance (the Steelers' top three receivers, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Bryant, are all incredibly talented).
Perhaps it's not a coincidence these are all Steelers' draft picks.
Pittsburgh added an impressive three wins from 2013, and in doing that, they've added eight starting or frequently contributing players via the draft. Players like Shamarko Thomas (fourth round 2013) and Dan McCullers (sixth round 2014) are on the cusp of that category next year. This will eventually be the anti-inflammatory medicine injected into their swollen salary cap, and, with their entire offense expected back in 2015 - one year after breaking the franchise's points scored record - look to get back to stockpiling developmental talent.
However the Steelers finish in 2014 - they will take on the Baltimore Ravens Saturday in the AFC Wild Card playoffs - this year as been about development and rebuilding. The team has shown every indication it can compete at a high level in 2015.
Players like Bryant reflect both the return of a great scouting department as well as the return of the Steelers into league-wide contention.