Since the NFL free agency period has become more and more popular over the years, you're naturally wondering how well the Steelers will do, starting next Tuesday when free-agents with no restrictions are free to sign with any team they please.
Thanks to some contract restructurings and player releases, Pittsburgh actually has a respectable amount of space under the cap. But, standing right now at between $7 and $8 in the black, the Steelers are clearly no Jacksonville in-terms of cap space ($68,477,511). Therefore, you can certainly expect the Jaguars to be free-agent "winners" whenever someone decides to write such a list in a few weeks. Last April, the Buccaneers were declared top "winners," and they went on to parlay their free-agency success into a 2-14 record (you can expect Tampa to fight the Jags for top billing again this season).
In all fairness, the Broncos, Ravens and Packers were also among the winners from a year ago, but they were already kind of "winners" to begin with. And the Raiders were also on the list, and they finished 2014 with a 3-13 record.
The NFL is basically the exact opposite of Major League Baseball in-terms of who gets to make the "splashes" in free-agency. In baseball, there is no cap and there are no restrictions for the big teams--the ones who hail from the large markets and enjoy the lucrative local TV deals—to go out and basically alter their roster to a point where a World Series title can be predicted and expected.
In football, the best an already good team can normally expect to do is keep as many of its free-agents as possible and maybe hope to sign someone who can come in and be a complementary asset. Whereas, the truly bad teams with lots of space can make headlines by signing four or five decent to better free-agents.
Why? Because of that pesky salary cap, of course.
Also, unlike baseball, in pro football, the really, really good players usually don't reach free-agency. Either their current team is smart enough to sign them to an extension ahead of time, or they simply get slapped with a franchise tap. Sure, there's the occasional Peyton Manning or Elvis Dumervil who finds himself on the open market, but that's because of unusual circumstances—in Dumervil's case, it involved his agent and a faxing snafu.
And even if a player such as a DeMarco Murray actually hits the open market like this year, he's getting top dollar. Maybe he'll find a way to play for a decent enough team, but chances are, Murray (27 and coming off an NFL rushing title) is going for the richest contract he can find--and there are plenty of bad football teams with lots of cap space ready and willing to give him all he wants.
As this all relates to the Steelers, regardless of how much space they may have made for free-agents, chances are, the players that do come here will be similar to the ones they signed a year ago—in other words, not quite upper-echelon, but maybe good enough to fill a need and maybe add some depth.
Guys who can come in and start right away and make a difference? That might be a little tougher. Last year, the Steelers seemed to use free-agency with the idea of adding depth, with the exception of Mike Mitchell, who was obviously brought in to start, and LeGarrette Blount, who was brought in to be a back-up but also a valuable member of the offense. As for Lance Moore, Brice McCain, Arthur Moats and Cam Thomas? Those players were brought in as complementary pieces.
Neither of the two big free-agent signings—Mitchell and Blount—paid off in-terms of being difference-makers. In the case of Blount, that really didn't matter during the regular season because of the star that Le'Veon Bell turned into. But Pittsburgh sure could have used Mitchell to make a splash and turn some heads, instead of mostly drowning in a sea of high-expectations and a wave of vitriol from the fans.
In the cases of Moore and Thomas, they did little to earn their pay. However, thanks to the development of both Stephon Tuitt and Martavis Bryant (2014 second and fourth round picks, respectively), as well as the first to second year leap of Markus Wheaton, those free-agent signings may quickly be forgotten.
McCain and Moats were surprisingly valuable members and key contributors down-the-stretch during the team's march toward an AFC North title, but the Steelers didn't appear anywhere on the "winners" list last year. And, again, in all fairness, they didn't wind-up on the list of "losers," either. I don't expect Pittsburgh to wind-up on either list again this season ($7 million keeps you off most lists). What I expect is maybe one free-agent signing who will come to Pittsburgh with an expectation that he will start, along with a few other assets who will be brought in to add depth.
Unlike baseball, football is a team sport. If you don't already have a decent core group of players, chances are, your free-agent "splash" will be akin to a funnel cloud in the middle of the Atlantic--not much damage. Expect more of the same this year from the Steelers.