The Steelers are known, league-wide, for their loyalty to players. It was that loyalty, in fact, that contributed heavily to the salary-cap mess the team was forced to extricate themselves from through the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Despite a team environment that is often described by current, and former, players as a family, there is no getting around the confines of the salary cap, which claims several casualties each year in Pittsburgh, as it does for all 32 teams.
Strange it can be, indeed, when a former player lines up against his former ‘mates for the first time. These four former Steelers will (or at least may) do just that in 2017.
Markus Wheaton, Chicago Bears - September 24, 2017, 1:00 p.m. ET
There were high hopes for Wheaton when he was drafted 79th overall in 2013. As the initial number-two receiver behind Antonio Brown in 2014, after Emmanuel Sanders left as a free agent for Denver, Wheaton pulled down 53 receptions for 644 yards and two touchdowns. His receptions dropped, but yards increased, as he took a back seat to Martavis Bryant in 2015, once Bryant returned from an early suspension. But, he fell off the map in 2016 after a shoulder injury kept him out of all but the first three games.
Despite his injury, the Bears grabbed Wheaton to join a receiving corp that also includes former first-round pick Kendall Wright, former second-round pick Reuben Randle and Victor Cruz, who picked up 241 receptions over a three-year stretch with the Giants from 2011 to 2013. Wheaton will be in the mix in Chicago, but will be looking at a quarterback situation that is messy, at best: as of right now, they have Mike Glennon, Mark Sanchez and 2017 first-round pick Mitch Trubisky. That’s hardly the same as catching passes from two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Brandon Boykin, Baltimore Ravens - October 1, 2017, 1:00 p.m. ET
I admit, there is no guarantee this matchup actually happens. Boykin’s numbers from his solo season as a Steeler can be described best as “paltry”. It’s still not entirely clear why he was used so sparingly in 2015 in a secondary that was short on talent and long on need. He signed with the Carolina Panthers in 2016, but was soon cut, then signed by the Bears. Unfortunately, that stint ended on Injured Reserve. Boykin was signed by the Ravens for their now-perennially depleted secondary, but considering he hasn’t played much since his final season with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014, I’d say this one is iffy at best. But it could happen.
Cam Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs - October 15, 2017, 4:25 p.m. ET
The fact that Thomas is still on an NFL roster may be the most shocking factoid you learn today. His tenure in Pittsburgh was marked, mostly, by film of him getting pushed around by offensive linemen, tight ends, running backs, ball boys, former CBS play-by-play announcer Dick Enberg, several members of the Chicago Childrens’ Choir and a cold, southwesterly wind off Lake Erie on January 3rd, 2016 in Cleveland.
In all seriousness, Thomas was simply not going to be a long-term, or even short-term, answer for the Steelers on their defensive line. His performance in Pittsburgh was so dreadful, in fact, that many fans were legitimately uneasy when the Steelers acquired Ricardo Mathews, Thomas’ former Chargers defensive linemate, in a palpable manifestation of Guilt by Association.
Most of us will remember Thomas moving in one direction: backward. We can only hope he is forced into the Chiefs’ starting lineup for week six.
Sean Spence, Indianapolis Colts - November 12, 2017, 1:00 p.m. ET
Spence left the team as a free agent in 2016 after two years of seeing action in a reserve role at inside linebacker. The former third-round pick arrived to a good deal of fanfare due to his quickness off the snap, ability to diagnose plays with speed and precision, and generally being around the ball pretty much all the time. Unfortunately, a catastrophic — and I do mean catastrophic — knee injury that included nerve damage sidelined him for his entire rookie season, and part of his second year. As the team was transitioning him off the Physically Unable to Perform list in 2013, he severely broke his finger in his first practice back. The snake-bitten linebacker was shelved for the second straight season.
He started 13 of the 31 games in which he appeared for the Steelers, netting 62 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble and one fumble recovery as a Steeler.
He signed a one-year contract with the Titans in 2016, and is now a member of the Indianapolis Colts.