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Labriola on the NFL's 'March madness'

Posted Mar 10, 2017

It was a rather typical start to free agency once again for the Steelers.

Ready or not, here it comes:

* Free agency began officially at 4 p.m. yesterday, March 9 – even though the 48-hour legal tampering period preceding that had resulted in many deals getting done before any official papers could be signed – and while there was a predictable amount of insanity in several NFL cities, it was business as usual in Pittsburgh.

* As they have in just about every one of the NFL offseasons over the past quarter century, the Steelers refrained from any of the opening night madness, instead allocating their cap space to secure those among their own free agents they had decided they needed the most.

* The team is going to delve into the free agent market. It will happen. But when it does, the Steelers will look for some value after the first wave, they will look for some young, ascending player(s) they can sign to a contract that fits into the overall salary structure in their locker room.

* Anyway, 13 of their own players could have hit the open market yesterday, but only nine did because they re-signed four of them. Before the sun had set on Day 1 of the NFL’s unique brand of March madness, the Steelers had re-signed two more. And three of those six are integral to their prospects for 2017, with a fourth filling one of the most underrated roles on an NFL roster: an experienced, reliable long-snapper.

* James Harrison re-signed, and Le’Veon Bell was designated the team’s franchise player, and it was reported that the designation was the exclusive version, which means he is not permitted to negotiate with any team other than the Steelers. Landry Jones signed a two-year contract to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup, and the first guy to put pen to paper was long-snapper Greg Warren. The other two re-signed players were David Johnson and Steven Johnson.

* On the other side of the ledger, Markus Wheaton is off to Chicago to play for the Bears, and Lawrence Timmons spent the day being wined and dined by the Miami Dolphins, but as of sunrise today no deal had been announced/leaked.

* Losing Wheaton stings slightly, but his loss can be absorbed by the players on the current roster, by the expected reinstatement of Martavis Bryant, and by the deep crop of talent at receiver available in the upcoming draft.

* Besides Bell and Harrison, a third significant Steelers’ asset was signed before the Scouting Combine began in Indianapolis on March 1, and that contract extension binds him to the team through the 2021 season when he will be months away from his 33rd birthday, but we’ll get into more detail about Antonio Brown later.

* Among the Steelers’ remaining free agents, Timmons deserves to be classified as the most important to bring back, but the presence of Vince Williams would mitigate the damage if he was to leave. The rest of the original 13 include Jarvis Jones, DeAngelo Williams, Shamarko Thomas, Ricardo Mathews, and Cody Wallace. All due respect to those five guys, but none of them deserve to be categorized as critical/irreplaceable.

* If Steelers Nation was to be polled for an opinion on the team’s performance so far, it would be a toss-up as to whether the absence of a big-money signing or the actual re-signing of Landry Jones would be identified as the least-favorite move. The continued fan criticism of Jones has become irrational and reveals a lack of understanding of the role the team wants him to fill, and a two-year contract worth a reported $4.4 million is extremely reasonable for a veteran backup quarterback in the current climate.

* The Jones signing also removes any urgency for the Steelers to allocate one of their eight draft picks to a quarterback. With the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger this offseason perceived to be increasingly unlikely, with Jones under contract for the next two years, and with Zach Mettenberger under contract for 2017 at an extremely reasonable $690,000 to provide the team with a No. 3 quarterback with NFL starting experience, the depth chart at the position only needs a fourth arm for the offseason program that will start with rookie minicamp the weekend after the draft.

* General Manager Kevin Colbert said this on Feb. 16: “Our quarterback situation, I am hopeful and confident that Ben will be back. Landry Jones is a free agent. We would love to have Landry be able to stay in the mix … So will we add a young one in some form or fashion, absolutely. When? It’s hard to say.”

* That was widely interpreted to mean the Steelers would be drafting a quarterback this year, but here’s an interpretation that’s more likely now that Jones has been re-signed. Yes, the Steelers will add a “young one,” but they also did that “in some form or fashion” last year. His name was Dustin Vaughan. He was brought in to save Roethlisberger’s arm during the offseason program and through training camp, and he had a chance to compete for the No. 3 job.

* That’s the kind of quarterback the Steelers again will be looking to add this spring.

* Let’s move on to the signing of Brown, his five-year contract criticized in some circles as being too lucrative at an average of a reported $17 million a year. Well, Pierre Garcon is going to be paid a reported $16 million by the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. Who would you rather have?

* And getting the Brown deal done in a timely fashion, and for an amount representative of his standing among the league’s elite receivers, serves as a message from management to the players that when they are told to wait their turn and then they will be rewarded fairly it’s the truth.

* Brown’s compensation first became an issue when he still had three years left on his existing contract. The Steelers told him that the team policy was to talk contract extensions with non-quarterbacks only when the player is entering the final year of his existing contract. That message was reiterated a year ago, at which time Brown also was told he would be made a priority this offseason.

* Everything the Steelers told him was true, and so when another player finds himself in the same situation and is told the same thing, he can have confidence that it’s the truth. That’s one way to prevent jealousy and dissension from festering in the locker room, and preventing those issues from even incubating is a crucial element in contending for a championship. Brown’s teammates know how hard he works and what he contributes and where he stands among his peers around the NFL, and seeing that the Steelers were true to their word has to go a long way toward fostering trust between players and management when it comes to future contract issues.

* When asked if getting Brown signed to an extension before the Combine was important to the Steelers, Colbert said, “It was. And we told Antonio and his representatives, Drew and Jason Rosenhaus, that he would be a priority. What he’s done for us throughout his career has been awesome. It needed to be rewarded. We have a policy where we don’t talk to people before they’re entering their last year. So coupled with what he did and our policy, it was just the right thing to do, to do it as quickly as we could. And we’re very happy that we were able to come to that agreement. I believe Antonio, Jason, and Drew are very happy, as well.”

* And yes, it also fosters trust with players’ agents. Don’t underestimate that either.

* I do this every year at this time, but for the sake of those new to the program, consider these numbers as a way to keep things in perspective. The Steelers visited with 60 players during the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. As of this moment, they will make eight draft picks between April 27 and April 29. Keep that in mind if you’re tempted to pore over blogs and tweets tripping over each other to detail which players met with the Steelers during the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

* For the mathematically inclined, the Steelers met with 18.2 percent of the players invited to Indianapolis; even if each of the eight players they draft turns out to be a guy they interviewed in Indianapolis – which isn’t necessarily the case – they will have picked just 13 percent of them.

* Read those reports about which players the Steelers interviewed in Indianapolis and enjoy them, but view them as “smoking gun” evidence at your own peril.

* The Steelers deploy a variety of combinations of scouts and coaches during the interview process, and those who walk into the room and see Coach Mike Tomlin among the team’s representatives can expect a specific slant to the questioning.

* “I have a framework,” said Tomlin about his interview style. “I want to know their background, their family, where they’re from, their athletic background, their experiences in athletics. I want to get a sense of their injury history. I want to get a sense of their football playing personality and character. However I can gather that information, I will. That’s the framework, but all of the discussions are different because the men are different. There are a lot of variables with it, but in a nutshell I’m trying to gather historic information regarding them, their playing careers, their medical history, their playing personality and football character.”

* Is there a “book” on Tomlin’s Combine interview style? “I’d imagine if there is a book out there on my (Combine) interview technique,” said Tomlin, “it’s that I’m somewhat schizophrenic in the administration of the interview. I have triggers like everyone has triggers. It might be how the young man comes into the room and says, hello. It might be the appearance of the young man. It might be a lot of things that take the interview in another direction, or in an unintended direction.”

* Or to boil it down using one of the original Tomlinisms, it’s thoughtfully non-rhythmic.

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