5 for Friday: Offseason heats up next week

So much of the focus on the offseason centers on the NFL Draft and what it will bring to teams.

For a franchise such as the Steelers, that makes sense. After all, the Steelers have traditionally built through the draft, never going out and spending wildly in free agency.

But the 2022 offseason was outside the norm.

With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's retirement, the Steelers found themselves with substantial means to make moves in free agency. They weren't going to be free spenders like some other franchises. But when they identified a target, they were going to get him.

The team wanted to upgrade its offensive line. James Daniels and Mason Cole were added in the early days of free agency. So were quarterback Mitch Trubisky and linebacker Myles Jack.

Others were added in the ensuing weeks and months, including defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi.

When the smoke had cleared, the Steelers had arguably their most active year in free agency in their history.

Will they be as active this offseason as they were last? History tells us probably not.

But if the Steelers see the opportunity to improve the team, there aren't any salary cap restrictions holding them back as there were in some previous seasons when the cap stayed stagnant or, as was the case in 2021, actually went down.

The cap increased $16 million this year, and the Steelers are right where they want to be heading into the start of the new league year.

"You guys have seen through different seasons what kind of shape we've been in," GM Omar Khan said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine. "We're obviously in a lot better shape than we've been in the past. There were years where we had to be -- I don't really like to use the word, 'creative' -- but had to do some things. We're comfortable if there's the opportunity to improve our team with someone, we can make things happen. There's nothing that will be holding us back."

The Steelers don't have to get creative in this offseason to make things happen. If there's another player at any position such as Daniels or Cole that they want to go get, they can do so.

And they also have more firepower in the draft than they are accustomed to having with three picks in the top 49 and four in the top 80 selections.

While other teams in the AFC and, more importantly, in the AFC North struggle to keep their nucleus intact, the Steelers will clearly be adding to the team, not subtracting.

It's a big reason Khan was so excited about the next couple of months when he spoke at the Combine.

"Obviously, there's still a lot of time between now and the draft, but also, free agency, we have a pretty good feel of what that's going to look like," Khan said. "We'll see where it goes, but we've got a good feel of where things are."

• As the NFL heads into free agency, roughly one-third of the league's players are slated to be free agents.

That's now become the norm for the league.

The stars still get their deals. Many of the league's middle class, however, wind up signing deals for one or two years.

And while you have to have your stars, there's a strong argument that could be made that a team is only as good as its middle class.

Those guys who aren't on rookie deals who are making less than $5 or $6 million are key components to every successful team.

When it comes down to it, signing two or three good players is often more valuable to adding one star. Depth during an NFL season is critical.

• The question often arises in regard to who is the Steelers' best free agent signing in their history?

We'll only go back to 1993, since that was the first year of true free agency in the NFL, but it's pretty hard to look past James Farrior. Signed in 2002 at 26, Farrior far outperformed any ideas the Steelers might have had for them when they brought him in.

In most cases, you're looking to get one more contract out of a guy, maybe two. Farrior spent the next 10 seasons with the Steelers and was the cornerstone of three teams that went to Super Bowls, winning two.

He had 90 or more tackles in eight different seasons with the Steelers, recorded eight interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. And remember, unlike a true 4-3 middle linebacker, in the 3-4 defense, the inside linebackers wind up sharing all those tackle numbers. It's really difficult to get to some of the gaudy numbers you see for other teams.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

More importantly, Farrior was the glue to some great Steelers defenses. Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Joey Porter and others might have gotten more of the fanfare, but Farrior was the player they all followed.

He should get consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but unfortunately played in the same era as other great off-ball linebackers such as Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, who wound up taking up the All-Pro votes for the majority of his career.

But that shouldn't diminish to Steelers fans his importance to the franchise.

• With the NFL's release of its 32 compensatory draft picks on Thursday afternoon, the draft order is now completely set.

The Steelers' picks in the top three rounds don't change at all. So, they still have picks 17, 32, 49 and 80. But because seven third-round comp picks were given out, the Steelers' fourth-round pick in the fourth round is now officially at 120.

After that, they don't have another pick until midway through the seventh round thanks to past deals.

Acquiring additional picks in this year's draft – a slight trade back at 17, 32 or 49 – to gain an additional pick or two wouldn't be the worst idea.

Though it's lacking perhaps in top-end players, this draft is extremely deep. Picking up an additional draft selection in that top 160 area could be beneficial.

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