The Steelers may not have closed the door on free agency, but listening to General Manager Kevin Colbert today it certainly seems as though the team has turned the page and is focusing on the NFL Draft.
"I don't think we are ever going to close the door completely," said Colbert, "but we've been really juggling both free agency and draft preparation. Now it's more about, let's finalize the pro days, and then we will move into our draft meetings. They actually start this week, but then we will follow up with the better players the last three weeks. So, everything is moving away from free agency and into the final draft preparation."
Colbert's point was supported by the fact he was doing an interview by telephone during a period when most of the rest of the guys doing his job have gathered in Arizona for the 2017 NFL Owners Meetings.
This particular free agency period turned out to be rather typical for the Steelers. The team investigated a couple of players during the opening stage of free agency, even brought in cornerback Davon House and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, made offers, and when those offers were rejected, they used the secondary phase of free agency to add some guys who will provide depth and allow the team to have flexibility in the manner in which it uses the upcoming draft.
"As I said the last time we talked (at the Combine), this thing is constantly evolving," said Colbert. "We never really lock ourselves in. You have a plan. You have an idea of what you want to do. Then someone is available you didn't think would be available. Maybe someone signed who you didn't think would sign. But for the most part, we've generally been more active after the first week or two than we are at the very beginning (of free agency), and I think that was the case this year. Again, we tried to identify who was left who could possibly help us. We tried to focus on younger players who still have maybe somewhat of an upside. They have had some production in their careers. They will have a more specific role where maybe they can contribute to us. I think that was the case with Justin Hunter, Tyson Alualu, Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh."
Colbert then went into some detail about how two of those four could fit in with this Steelers team.
"In Tyson's case, he was a high pick. We liked him through the draft process when he came out (in 2010)," said Colbert. "He can provide us depth and competition, really, at both end and nose tackle. More so probably as an inside pass rusher and in most of the sub-rush stuff, even though he has rushed some from the outside. Veteran defensive linemen who can play both inside and outside are very valuable. The type of player and person he is, he hasn't had the success from a team standpoint that he had hoped to achieve, so I think he is excited about getting into our environment. Davis is a young guy, only 25 years old. So there is still a lot of football left in him. His age, his size, his speed and his kick return production, all were very interesting to us. Does that mean that the door is closed on DeAngelo? Again, I will never shut that door completely until we have to, and that's when we reach that 90-man roster limit."
Unlike so many offseasons in the recent past, the Steelers didn't have to make any roster moves to get into compliance with the salary cap when the league year began, in 2017 on March 9. But even though the team had some room under the cap, Colbert said that didn't impact the Steelers' general approach to this part of the offseason.
"There was more money available, and you have to be careful about the quality of player you're intending to sign, because there are fewer players, so they may command more money," said Colbert. "But are they really worth it? So, I think it's no different than when we've been tighter against the cap. You also don't want to stray from the way you do business and the way we've done business here. We have other signings we want to do. Maybe we'll have more flexibility when we move into the summer, when we're talking about signing guys who might be free agents next year."
And Colbert then explained the way the Steelers do business: "We've always had the philosophy of draft your own, try to keep your own. And I think that … if the players see that a guy stays and remains a good player … then there's a chance for him to have a great career with us. That part is never going to change. I think that we do partake in free agency, but our free agency is signing an Antonio Brown to a very significant deal, or putting a franchise tag Le'Veon Bell. I think we do participate in free agency, but we prefer to sign our own free agents first. Then, do business outside if we can."
And then when March melts into April, focus on the upcoming draft.
STEELERS NOTES: In a couple of related matters, Colbert said Bell is on schedule with his rehabilitation following surgery to repair that injury to his core. "Our focus is him being ready for the 2017 season," said Colbert. "At what point does he return? The doctors, trainers, and Le'Veon will determine that. But the goal is to have him 100 percent for the 2017 season, so whatever path the experts tell us to take with that, we'll follow." … And while Colbert said he has gotten no direct word from Ben Roethlisberger about the 2017 season, his approach to that is unchanged. "As I've said, until I would hear otherwise, until the organization hears otherwise," said Colbert, "we're assuming he's ready to go, and he'll try to win a championship."