Later today, at 4 p.m. to be precise, the 2014 free agency period is set to begin, and as usual the Steelers aren’t expected to dive in when the opening bell sounds. Since the system was implemented back in 1993, the Steelers never have been the type of organization that tried to win free agency, but it has been utilized to add some guys who became core players on teams that competed for championships and won championships.
The opening of free agency always seems to leave Steelers fans on the outside looking in, and while history has shown that Super Bowl rosters aren’t built in the middle of March, that doesn’t make it any easier to sit back and watch the feeding frenzy. And so while waiting for the megabucks wave of free agency to pass, Steelers fans are offered this one unscientific list of the team’s 10 best UFA signings of the last 20 years.
There will be no attempt to rank these 10 outside of Nos. 1 and 2:
NO. 1 – JAMES FARRIOR
The best UFA signing in franchise history, and it never even happens if Earl Holmes’ agent hadn’t said “no” one too many times.
Farrior entered the league as the New York Jets’ No. 1 pick (eighth overall) in 1997, and it was Bill Parcells who made the choice and then installed him as an outside linebacker. But during his five seasons with the Jets, Farrior played for three different head coaches, and by the time 2001 ended he was something of an afterthought in New York. Meanwhile, the Steelers were in negotiations with Holmes, their first pick in the fourth round of the 1996 draft who had grown into a run-stuffing starting inside linebacker.
As the 2002 offseason progressed, Steelers President Dan Rooney went as far with Holmes as he was going to go on a new contract, and when the answer from the agent still was “no,” Rooney instructed Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher to move on to another player. That player turned out to be James Farrior. Nine seasons later, in 2010, Coach Mike Tomlin said, “Our unquestioned leader is James Farrior. If you polled anybody, player or coach, equipment man or receptionist, they realize he sets the tone for this outfit.”
NO. 2 – JEFF HARTINGS
Mike Webster’s Hall of Fame career had ended after the 1988 season, and he had been replaced capably by another future Canton inductee by the name of Dermontti Dawson. But by the middle of the 2000 season it became apparent that Dawson’s body wasn’t going to allow him to play anymore, and so the search was on to find a successor.
But the Steelers believed Hartings was capable of making the difficult transformation, and so they signed him to replace Dawson. Hartings would play six seasons for the Steelers, and during that time he would be voted first-team All-Pro at center, which means for that season he was the best center in the NFL.
THE BEST OF THE REST, LISTED CHRONOLOGICALLY
The second UFA ever signed by the Steelers, Greene never would have been pursued by the Steelers if the San Diego Chargers hadn’t signed Jerrol Williams to an offer sheet the Steelers declined to match. The reason they declined to match was because it was only a one-year contract and at that time Dan Rooney didn’t allow one-year contracts. As a starting OLB for the Steelers in 1991 and 1992, Williams had 13.5 sacks over the two seasons. Greene posted 12.5 in 1993 alone, and he finished his three seasons in Pittsburgh with 35.5 sacks.
Talk about under the radar, Ray Seals was under the radar. First of all, he didn’t play college football, and then he graduated from playing for the Syracuse Express of the Empire Football League to a spot on the defensive line for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that never bettered 6-10 in any of his four seasons there. But it didn’t take Seals long to establish himself as a 3-4 rarity – a defensive end who was a dangerous pass rusher. Using a combination of nimble feet and quick hands, Seals posted 15.5 sacks in 1994-95 before tearing a rotator cuff in the 1996 preseason and landing on injured reserve. He would finish his career with the Carolina Panthers.
JOHN L. WILLIAMS
During Bill Cowher’s first two seasons as the Steelers coach, the team’s offense was heavily dependent on the run. In 1992, Neil O’Donnell and Bubby Brister combined to attempt 429 passes, while halfback Barry Foster had 390 carries himself. In 1993, even though Foster missed almost half the season with an ankle injury, the Steelers ran it 491 times and tried to throw it 540 times. Looking for a way to diversify, but safely, the Steelers decided on Williams, a fullback known for his receiving skills. Williams averaged 4.7 yards a carry and led the team with 51 catches in 1994. His role as a receiver diminished in 1995 with the emergence of Yancey Thigpen, Andre Hastings, Ernie Mills, and Kordell “Slash” Stewart, and Williams retired after Super Bowl XXX.
A kicker? Really? Yes indeed, because Armageddon had been forecast by the local media when the Steelers refused to cave in to the demands of Gary Anderson, and it was Johnson to the rescue. After Anderson led the team with 104 points in 1994, Johnson came on to set franchise records for points (141) and field goals made (34) the following season. During his four seasons in Pittsburgh, Johnson converted 105-of-127 field goal attempts (.827).
An All-Pro left tackle for the Buffalo Bills during their run to four straight AFC Championships, Wolford was interested in the Steelers because he wanted to ease into the final stage of his NFL career as a guard. The Steelers were tickled to be able to sign him in 1996, and Wolford was a mainstay on an offensive line that helped Jerome Bettis rush for 4,281 yards in the three seasons from 1996-98.
There aren’t a lot of starting left tackles available via free agency, but the Steelers found one in Gandy during the 1999 offseason. During his four seasons in Pittsburgh, Gandy missed only one start, that being a game against the Ravens in 2001 because of a hamstring injury, and he proved himself to be a reliable replacement for John Jackson. Gandy, who entered the NFL as a No. 1 pick (15th overall) in 1994, blocked for Jerome Bettis in three different home cities – Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh.
KIMO VON OELHOFFEN
Yes, the Steelers were in the market for a nose tackle in 2000 following the departure of Joel Steed, but why would they sign somebody the Cincinnati Bengals didn’t want? Such was the prevailing sentiment when the Steelers signed von Oelhoffen away from a Bengals franchise that had posted records of 3-13, 7-9, 8-8, 7-9, 3-13, and 4-12 during his time in Cincinnati. But time proved the Steelers were right for wanting von Oelhoffen, because after one season as the nose tackle here, he was moved to defensive end where he played with distinction from 2001 through Super Bowl XL after the 2005 season.
The signing of Clark was another instance of the Steelers using free agency to react to a decision by one of their own players. Chris Hope was the starting free safety in 2004-05, but after Super Bowl XL he accepted a lucrative offer from the Tennessee Titans. That was when the Steelers went shopping for a replacement, and they decided on Clark, a four-year veteran who had come into the league as an undrafted rookie with the New York Giants in 2002 and also spent 2004-05 as a starter for the Washington Redskins. A Pro Bowl selection following the 2010 season, Clark currently has a six-season streak in which he has recorded at least 100 tackles.