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Labriola on some Steelers' history with UFAs

Posted Mar 16, 2018

Never a big player in free agency, but there has been some success and some interesting stories.

Ready or not, here it comes:

* Sometimes, the best deals are the ones you don’t make.

* The insanity/inanity that is NFL free agency is underway, and going back to 1993 when free agency first was introduced to the NFL the Steelers have been much more observers than participants. But there have been instances where the Steelers have dabbled, and three of their best-ever signings all have interesting side stories attached.

* The first unrestricted free agent signed by the Steelers was a linebacker named Greg Clark. He played for six teams in six seasons, but he didn’t make it out of training camp and into a regular season game for the Steelers. That and the fact his middle name is Klondike still don’t qualify him as either an interesting story or a successful signing, but history is history. And Clark was first.

* But the second signing was Kevin Greene, and that he contributed 35.5 sacks and six forced fumbles during his three seasons with the Steelers and ended up inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame  qualifies him as a successful signing, and there is an interesting story about how he ended up in Pittsburgh.

* 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. Williams, 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, was the Steelers’ fourth-round pick in the 1989 NFL Draft, and during his two seasons as a starter (1991-92) he posted 13.5 sacks for a defense in need of pass-rushers as it transitioned to Bill Cowher’s version of the 3-4.

* After the 1992 season, Williams was offered a one-year guaranteed contract. Steelers President Dan Rooney disliked only two things about that situation: he didn’t believe in one-year contracts that didn’t include an option year and he never did guaranteed contracts. As a result, the Steelers allowed Williams to join the Chargers, which meant Cowher was looking for a left outside linebacker for his 3-4.

* The Steelers eventually turned to Greene, whose career with the Los Angeles Rams had stalled because the team switched to a 4-3 defense. From 1988-90, as a 3-4 left outside linebacker, Greene posted 46 sacks, but as a defensive end in 1991 he had only three. Considered by some to be washed up, a change of scenery is actually all that Greene needed. He got that with the Steelers.

* The best free agent signing, in my opinion, in Steelers history is James Farrior, and that never happens if not for the stubbornness of Earl Holmes and his agent.

* It was 2002, and Holmes (6-2, 242), the Steelers’ fourth-round pick in 1996, was an unrestricted free agent looking for a new contract with the team that drafted him. A full-time starter since he second season in the league, Holmes was a run-stuffing inside linebacker, and after protracted negotiating sessions, the talks had hit a stalemate. Dan Rooney had his contract negotiator make an offer that Rooney saw as the best he was willing to do, and still it was declined.

* Frustrated, Rooney told Kevin Colbert and Cowher that he was done negotiating with Holmes, and they should start scouring the market for somebody else who could play inside linebacker. Farrior, the eighth overall pick of the 1997 NFL Draft by the Ne York Jets, had been miscast by Coach Bill Parcells as an outside linebacker and because he only had 5.5 sacks in five seasons that arrangement clearly wasn’t working for either side.

* The Steelers settled on Farrior, who was tickled to get a fresh start with a team that had played in two AFC Championship Games during his five seasons in the league. 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.”

* But maybe the most interesting free agent the Steelers ever signed was Ray Seals, and he was a guy could play defensive end in a 3-4 more than a little bit. When it came to being a 3-4 defensive end with pass-rushing skills, Dick LeBeau will tell you there weren’t many, if any, who did it as well as “Big Play Ray.”

* Seals played at Henninger High School in Syracuse, but he didn't finish school. When his mother moved to Orlando to care for her ailing parents, Seals went, too, and managed to get a vocational diploma.

* Eventually Seals moved back to Syracuse, and he worked at a Taco Bell, as a bouncer and cleaning up after last call at Sutter's Mill, the main bar at the center of the Syracuse University campus, but imagine a 6-3, 296-pound man in a doorman’s uniform. That was Seals during the time he worked the door at the Hotel Syracuse.

* While working as a doorman, Seals found time to star for the semi-pro Syracuse Express of the Empire Football League, and he broke into the NFL in 1989 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 1994 he signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Steelers, and in two seasons he had 15.5 sacks, plus another one in Super Bowl XXX.

* When the 2017 season ended, the Vikings had Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater on their depth chart at quarterback. The team finished 13-3 and lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia in the Super Bowl. Now, Kirk Cousins is the Vikings quarterback based on a three-year reportedly fully- guaranteed $84 million contract; Case Keenum is in Denver; Teddy Bridgewater signed with the New York Jets; and Sam Bradford is in Arizona.

* Based on those transactions, I submit the following from Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer under the “Truer Words Never Were Spoken” category, NFL free agent division: “It’s important for myself and (General Manager) Rick Spielman and the organization that we pick the right (quarterback) who is going to help us continue to move forward. If we don’t do that, then I’ll probably get fired.”

* With respect to what Zimmer said, there’s no “probably” about it.

* If you’re one of those fans who can’t get enough of the Scouting Combine and like to utilize the teams’ interviewing of players there as a method of reading the tea leaves as a predictor of the NFL Draft, I offer you some simple arithmetic. The Steelers generally interview the full complement of 60 players during the Combine – as they did again a few weeks ago – and they will make seven draft picks. That works out to an 11.7 percent chance.

* I have been getting the usual “suggestions” about players the Steelers should sign, but I have to admit to being disappointed that I’ve yet to be hit with a suggestion I admit to thinking was a no-brainer for Yinzer Nation. Tim Tebow recently was cut by the New York Mets, and nobody out there thinks he might make a great coverage inside linebacker? Or somebody to push Landry? A tight end in the red zone? Something?

* C’mon, people. You’re letting me down.