Photos: A look at Mitchell's career
Free agency is but 24 hours old, and the Steelers already have checked off one item from their shopping list. They found a safety to replace Ryan Clark.
When the Oakland Raiders spent a second-round draft pick (47th overall) in 2009 on a safety from Ohio University named Mike Mitchell, draftniks consulted their player rankings and said, "Huh?" After four uninspiring seasons with the Raiders, Mitchell accepted a one-year, incentive-laden, show-me contract from the Carolina Panthers in an attempt to prove to NFL teams he was better than his statistics in Oakland.
Mitchell's investment in himself paid off today when he signed a five-year contract with the Steelers that comes with a reported $25 million and a spot in the starting lineup next to Troy Polamalu.
One calendar year ago, Mitchell (6-foot, 216 pounds) had made just nine NFL starts over four seasons in Oakland, and therefore there was little out there for him when he hit free agency besides the one-year contract offered by Carolina. But with the Panthers, Mitchell blossomed with 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks, four interceptions, eight passes defensed, and two forced fumbles for a team that finished 12-4.
"I want to play for somebody who's going to be a contender, and I want to be on a team that sees me as an integral piece, not just a little fill-in," Mitchell, who will be 27 in June, told USA Today during the run-up to March 11. "I want to be a staple in someone's defense, because I think I can become that type of player."
The Steelers will give him the opportunity to be a staple in their defense, and that will be in the spot Clark manned from 2006-13.
In many ways, Mitchell is a typical Steelers free agent signing in that he's still a relatively young player who has starting experience and apparently is on the rise. Another factor in Mitchell's favor is his mix of talents, which came through for the first time during his season with the Panthers.
The ability to deploy safeties to different areas of the field and have them torture the opponent in different ways can be a tremendous asset to a defense. Mitchell's stats line from 2013 indicates he can meet those requirements, and based on his 3.5 sacks and four interceptions last season he could be an upgrade over Clark in that respect.
Mitchell's experience with the Raiders wasn't a pleasant one. The team first projected him as a strong safety because of his hitting ability, but then Mitchell lost an open competition for the starting spot to Tyvon Branch, a fourth-round draft pick the previous year. With former No. 1 pick Michael Huff at free safety, the Raiders had no openings in their starting secondary.
In Carolina, Mitchell blossomed to the degree he tied Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly for the team lead with four interceptions in 2013. Some of Mitchell's success along the back end of the Panthers' defense has to be attributed to the ferocious play of the front seven, a group that helped the unit lead the NFL last year with 60 sacks.
Safety Quintin Mikell, who played alongside Mitchell for most of last season, said, "He has all the tools."
The Steelers agree, and now it's a matter of Mitchell proving them right.