For a long time, the Steelers looked at the early hours of free agency as a curiosity, unable or unwilling to jump into the water until it had warmed up some.
That changed Tuesday, likely spawned by consecutive 8-8 records and a decaying defense.
The Steelers broke from their norm and jumped headlong into the early hours of free agency when they signed a young safety to take Ryan Clark’s job.
Mike Mitchell, who had his best NFL season with the Carolina Panthers in 2013, signed a five-year contract with the Steelers worth $25 million. He earned $1 million in Carolina last season.
Mitchell, who will turn 27 in June, was Oakland’s second-round draft pick in 2009 from Ohio University, but he remained a backup for the Raiders. He signed a one-year contract with Carolina as a free agent last year, and his career took off as the starting free safety.
He is considered a fast (clocked at 4.45 in the 40), hard-hitting safety who intercepted four passes for a strong Panthers defense that helped Carolina to a 12-4 record last season.
On Twitter, Mitchell wrote, “I look forward to continuing my career in the black and Gold!”
Clark is an unrestricted free agent the Steelers were not expected to bring back as they remake what had been consistently a top-five defense.
They slipped from No. 1 in yards allowed in 2012 to No. 13 last season and, for the past three years, have had a notable drop-off in preventing big plays, making sacks and forcing turnovers.
While Troy Polamalu returns for at least one more season at strong safety, Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas look to be the safety duo of the future.
They also re-signed veteran Will Allen.
Mitchell, though, should start immediately at free safety, and his signing eased what was one glaring position need for the Steelers heading into the May draft.
The Steelers, partly handcuffed by their position under the cap and partly because they kept winning and going to Super Bowls, long held back in free agency, especially the first few days of it.
But they worked to find some cap room over the past two weeks, nearly $7 million worth, and certainly have many needs.
They especially have them on a defense that dominated for most of this century but has slipped badly in many areas — rankings by yards allowed and an inability to create turnovers especially — as players grew older and many young ones did not develop.
Mitchell’s four interceptions easily would have led the Steelers, who combined for just 10 last season.
So they made what looks to be their most significant free-agent signing since they landed Mitchell’s predecessor, Clark, in 2006.
Mitchell started 13 of the 15 games he played for Carolina last season. With the Raiders, he started nine games in four seasons. He had two forced fumbles to go with his four interceptions and 72 tackles in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Steelers have found themselves in a different position because they have not had a winning season since 2011. The players who delivered that Lombardi Trophy five years ago are nearly all gone and they badly need to restock their store.
They threw two Super Bowl XLIII defensive veterans out the door when they released linebackers LaMarr Woodley (officially Tuesday) and Larry Foote over the past week.
Another two defensive veterans of that Super Bowl victory are expected to join them on the outside — unrestricted free agents Clark and defensive end Brett Keisel.
Foote, Keisel and Clark all want to keep playing, and they might attract some low-key interest over the next few weeks.
The Steelers, in the meantime, have been talking to a slew of their own players who became unrestricted free agents Tuesday.
That group includes wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, offensive lineman Cody Wallace, defensive end Al Woods, long snapper Greg Warren and others.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.