It's not a long history, because they never have believed in using it as a primary method of roster building, but over the course of the 21 years the NFL has had free agency tied to a salary cap the Steelers have dipped a toe in the pool enough times to have had some interesting experiences.
The following look back at Steelers' free agency is presented in a "quiz" format, and it only includes the unrestricted free agents the team has signed. Unrestricted free agents (UFAs) are defined as players whose contracts with their previous teams expired. Guys who were cut by their team and the signed by the Steelers – known around the league as street free agents – aren't included in this category. Players who came to the Steelers via that route – Yancey Thigpen, Randy Fuller, Tim McKyer, Richard Huntley, Charlie Batch, and to give this a contemporary feel, Jerricho Cotchery – are not considered UFAs.
Good luck on the quiz. And keep your eyes on your own paper.
Q. Who was the first player ever signed by the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent?
A. Linebacker Greg Clark from the Seattle Seahawks, in 1993. Clark was released during training camp that summer and never played a down for the Steelers.
Q. Who was the second UFA signed by the Steelers?
A. The Steelers did a much better job on their second attempt. Kevin Greene signed some weeks after Clark, and he went on to pair with Greg Lloyd to form the best tandem of outside linebackers in franchise history since the days of Jack Ham and Andy Russell.
Q. How did the Steelers come to sign Greene?
A. That never would have happened had the San Diego Chargers not signed Jerrol Williams to an offer sheet the Steelers declined to match. As a starting OLB for the Steelers in 1991 and 1992, Williams had 13.5 sacks over two seasons. Greene posted 12.5 in 1993 alone.
Q. Who are the only quarterbacks the Steelers have signed as unrestricted free agents?
A. Mike Tomczak, in 1993 from the Cleveland Browns; Kent Graham, in 2000 from the New York Giants; and Bruce Gradkowski, in 2013 from the Cincinnati Bengals.
Q. Who is the only unrestricted free agent signed by the Steelers not to attend college?
A. Ray Seals, who went from Anthony A. Henninger High School in Syracuse, New York, to working a series of jobs – including as a doorman at a hotel – to playing for the Syracuse Express of the Empire Football League, to playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1989. Seals played five years for the Buccaneers before coming to Pittsburgh in 1994.
Q. What spot in NFL history does Seals hold?
A. In 1992, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were playing a game against the Green Bay Packers, Seals deflected a pass back to the quarterback who caught the ball for a completion. That quarterback was Brett Favre, and that completion was the first of his NFL career. Favre would retire with 6,300 completions, still No. 1 in that category on the NFL's all-time list.
Q. For which unrestricted free agent did Bill Cowher attempt to alter franchise history?
A. When fullback John L. Williams (pictured above) signed with the team in 1994, Cowher was so excited to add him that when Williams asked to wear No. 32 – his number with the Seattle Seahawks – Cowher took the request to Dan Rooney. Of course, in Pittsburgh No. 32 was worn by Hall of Fame fullback Franco Harris and had been unofficially retired after his career ended. Rooney refused Cowher's request, and Williams decided on No. 22 during his time with the Steelers.
Q. Bruce Gradkowski, signed in the 2013 offseason to be Ben Roethlisberger's backup, is a Pittsburgh native who played his high school football at Seton LaSalle. What other local products did the Steelers sign as an unrestricted free agents?
A. The first was safety Mike Logan, signed in 2001. Logan grew up in McKeesport, Pa., and played his high school football at McKeesport High School. Logan entered the NFL as a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1997. He was a member of the Steelers Super Bowl XL championship team, and he retired from the NFL in 2007.
The other was RB Kevan Barlow, who grew up within the city limits, played his high school football at Peabody and his college football at Pitt. Barlow, who entered the NFL as a third-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2001, was traded to the New York Jets in 2006. He was an unrestricted free agent from the Jets when the Steelers signed him in 2007. Barlow was cut in training camp and never played a down for his hometown team.
Q. Of the players signed by the Steelers as UFAs, which position have they targeted most often?
A. It's a tie between cornerbacks and guards, with six each. The six guards were Todd Kalis in 1994, Tom Newberry in 1995, Tom Myslinski in 1996, Will Wolford in 1996, Roger Duffy in 1998, and Rich Tylski in 2000. The six cornerbacks were Alvoid Mays in 1995, Chris Oldham in 1995, Donnell Woolford in 1997, Dewayne Washington in 1998, Willie Williams in 2004, and Ainsley Battles in 2004.
Q. Which UFA ended up costing the Steelers a draft pick?
A. It was Will Wolford. Signed in 1996 because the Steelers were looking for a guard and Wolford wanted to move inside from the left tackle position he had played to that point in his NFL career, the sides agreed to a contract where Wolford was to play guard. At the time, Dan Rooney also agreed that if Wolford was asked, and agreed, to play left tackle, he would receive a bonus payment for making the move. When the contract was typed up – no computers in those days – that bonus was omitted in error. When the Steelers needed Wolford to fill in at left tackle because of injury during the 1998 season, Rooney paid the bonus because he had given Wolford his word. Because the bonus wasn't in the original contract, the NFL docked the Steelers a No. 3 pick in the 2001 draft.
Q. Do any of the UFAs signed by the Steelers hold any of the franchise's all-time records?
A. PK Norm Johnson, signed in 1995, still holds the franchise record for points in a season – 141 in 1995. Johnson also holds the record for most field goals in a season, with 34 in 1995. WR Courtney Hawkins, signed in 1997, holds the franchise record for most receptions in a game, with 14 vs. Tennessee in 1998. CB Dewayne Washington, signed in 1998, holds the franchise record for interceptions returned for touchdowns in a game, with two against Jacksonville on Nov. 22, 1998.
ONE FINAL FREE AGENT FACTOID
From the time Mike Webster took over as the full-time starting center in 1977 until the time Dermontti Dawson retired after the 2000 season, the Steelers had stability at a critical position that was being manned by two future Hall of Fame inductees. Both Webster and Dawson were drafted by the Steelers, but their next three centers all came to the team as UFAs. Jeff Hartings was signed from Detroit in 2001, and he retired after the 2006 season. In 2007, the team signed Sean Mahan from Tampa Bay, and then it signed Justin Hartwig from Carolina in 2008. Hartwig started from 2008-09, and he was replaced the following season by Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers' No. 1 draft pick in 2010.