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Labriola on 'Paper Champions Week'

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Happy Paper Champions Week!

• Tuesday was March 17, and while this past week began with many observing St. Patrick's Day, the annual holiday that has come to inspire even more craziness happened one day later. Wednesday, March 18. Happy New League Year, and instead of the ball dropping at midnight, it dropped at 4 p.m. NFL free agency was open for business, and some teams celebrated by starting to spend their salary cap dollars like drunken sailors on leave after a six-month deployment at sea. And in many cases, just as indiscriminately.

• Actually, we got a tease to this football debauchery 48 hours prior when the "legal tampering" period began, and for accuracy's sake it's worth mentioning that anything happening during the legal tampering period is not and cannot become official until the New League Year begins. But in our social media environment, there often is no distinction between what we know and what is official, which is how a leak becomes a flood.

• Paper Champions Week is always a tough time of the NFL year to be a Steelers fan, because the team traditionally spectates instead of participates when free agency opens, and that goes all the way back to 1993, which was the NFL's first year of operating under the system of free agency tied to a salary cap.

• Dan Rooney was one of the authors of that original agreement with the NFLPA, and while he understood that free agency for the players was a critical component to labor peace in an NFL that had seen two work stoppages during the 1980s impacting regular season games, he also firmly believed free agency was not the way to build a roster that could contend for a championship.

• In fact, he often would respond to a team's outlandish signing with a cryptic, "Put that one in the PR budget," meaning it was done simply to try to convince a particular fan base that a team was making its roster better instead of actually making the kind of moves that would make the roster better. In today's vernacular, those kinds of moves often result in a team earning the label: Paper Champions.

• Dan Rooney believed in building a team through the draft, and at that time he walked past four Lombardi Trophies in the Steelers lobby at Three Rivers Stadium on the way to his office every day that served to support his argument. But he occasionally would relent and green-light the signing of an unrestricted free agent as a response to a loss in free agency, or as a response to a negotiation with one of his own players that had reached, in his mind, a stalemate.

• The first example of that came in 1993 when the agent for young outside linebacker Jerrol Williams took his client to San Diego on a one-year contract. Williams, a fourth-round pick by the Steelers in 1989, had posted 17.5 sacks during his time with the Steelers and was seen as an ascending player by Bill Cowher. The Steelers wanted to re-sign Williams and were working toward doing that when he accepted a one-year deal to go to the Chargers.

• With Dan Rooney's blessing, the Steelers responded to that by signing Kevin Greene.

• Some years later, the Steelers were in negotiations with another young linebacker, another individual they perceived to be an ascending player. Earl Holmes had been a fourth-round pick by the Steelers in 1996, and he was a physical, run-stuffing inside linebacker who had 79 starts in 81 games when he came up for a contract extension following the 2001 season. After going back-and-forth-and-back-and-forth with Holmes' representation, Dan Rooney reached the end of his rope.

• When the Holmes camp rejected what in Dan Rooney's mind was a make-or-break offer, he told his football people that they were finished with him and to look for a replacement. That replacement was James Farrior.

• So the Steelers have participated in free agency, and they've had some incredible success stories, including Greene and Farrior, plus Jeff Hartings, Ray Seals, Kimo von Oelhoffen, Will Wolford, and John L. Williams, just to name a few. But never have they participated in the first-day madness, and this time around was no exception.

• The Steelers philosophy is to build through the draft and then retain as many of their good players as is possible. It's why they often end up with so many high-salaried veterans, which is why they're often pushing hard up against the salary cap, which is why they typically stay away from the foolishness of Paper Champions Week.

• The one outlier was last year at this time. The Steelers found themselves unusually flush with room under the salary cap, because Le'Veon Bell unexpectedly sat out an entire season worth of franchise-tag-level paychecks, and all of that money, which was allocated to their cap at the time of the franchise tag being applied, was returned to the Steelers gradually as Bell continued to sit out regular season games.

• The three major signings that resulted from that largesse were Mark Barron, Donte Moncrief, and Steven Nelson. Barron, who had been cut by the Rams, was a hedge against the Steelers being able to draft the three-down linebacker they desperately had been missing since Ryan Shazier was injured, became a redundancy once the team was able to swing that draft day trade and secure Devin Bush, and so he was released as a cap casualty earlier in the week. Moncrief was a complete bust. Nelson proved to be an excellent addition and joined Joe Haden to give the Steelers one of the best tandems of starting cornerbacks they have had in a long while.

• Back to this year, and back to a more typical approach to free agency. They went into this with 13 players set to become free agents at the opening of the league year, with eight of those unrestricted (Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Bud Dupree, B.J. Finney, Javon Hargrave, Tyler Matakevich, Nick Vannett, and L.T. Walton); and five of those restricted (Zach Banner, Kameron Canaday, Jordan Dangerfield, Matt Feiler, and Mike Hilton).

• In keeping with their organizational philosophy of keeping their best players, the Steelers identified Dupree as the top priority, and they did what was necessary to clear space under their cap to apply the franchise tag to a 27-year-old outside linebacker who posted career highs in tackles (68), sacks (11.5), forced fumbles (four), and fumble recoveries (two), while also giving every indication he finally was completely comfortable with the defensive scheme and his responsibilities within it.

• So in that sense, free agency was a success for the Steelers, and the way in which they managed the most important of their restricted free agents added to the sense of success.

• By placing second-round tenders on both Matt Feiler and Mike Hilton, the Steelers secured the services of both players because no NFL team would consider giving up a second-round pick in the upcoming draft to sign either of them, but their value to the Steelers and the roles they will fill in 2020 make the salary commitment made to both of them worth it.

• The Steelers essentially picked Feiler over Finney, and actually the first time that happened was last season when Coach Mike Tomlin shuffled the starting offensive line in advance of the game against the Rams to deal with defensive tackle Aaron Donald and picked Feiler to move inside to left guard instead of having Finney replace Ramon Foster. Banner, Canaday, and Dangerfield all were retained, and keeping their probable swing tackle, their long-snapper, and their No. 3 safety as of now will provide flexibility to attend to some other areas during the rest of the offseason.

• Davis was going to leave for a chance at a starting safety job, and Matakevich was going to leave because if he wanted to play defense in addition to special teams he knew that was more likely to happen somewhere other than Pittsburgh. And there was no way the Steelers were going to be able to compete with what Hargrave was going to command on the open market, and besides the team already has two high-priced defensive linemen in Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward.

• With most of the in-house business completed – it would be nice to retain Vannett to stabilize the depth chart at tight end but only if his salary requirements are reasonable for the kind of player he is – the Steelers recently dipped their toes into the pool and added a couple of guys who fit the description of the outside players they typically add as free agents.

• Derek Watt replaces Rosie Nix as both a fullback on offense and a special teams ace, and Stefen Wisniewski adds experience and versatility to the interior of the offensive line. Both will fit into the culture at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, and both fill the kind of secondary needs the Steelers typically look to address during free agency.

• Nix was a fan favorite, but Watt is a healthier, more dependable version, and he won't need much time in a Steelers uniform to become a fan favorite as well. Wisniewski is a Western Pennsylvania native who has been a winner and a team guy at every level of football – high school, college, and in the NFL. And both have NFL bloodlines: Watt's brothers are J.J. and T.J., and Wisniewski's father, Leo, was an NFL defensive lineman, and his uncle, Steve, was a Pro Bowl guard.

• It might not seem like it, but the Steelers have been executing their organizational plan to this point in the 2020 version of free agency. They secured their own best unrestricted free agent; they created enough salary cap room to hold onto a few of the more important role players who could've been enticed to leave; and by week's end they made a couple of low-key signings to reinforce their depth chart with the kind of pedigreed people they felt comfortable adding to their locker room.

• And they didn't do anything to earn the title of Paper Champions.

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