Free agency takes a big spin for Steelers



The Steelers lost their first free agents to other teams Wednesday and now have a dire situation at defensive end.

Al Woods came to contract terms with the Tennessee Titans. He was a backup they hoped to re-sign who might have competed for a starting job this year at defensive end.

Two other ends, Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel, are unrestricted free agents. Hood began touring other teams Wednesday seeking offers.

Woods, Hood and Keisel were three of their top four defensive ends in 2013. Now, one is gone, and the others might follow. With Hood looking for jobs elsewhere and Keisel's agent saying the veteran will not play anywhere for minimum wage, the Steelers could be left with one experienced defensive end in Cameron Heyward.

On their official depth chart, the Steelers list Heyward and Brian Arnfelt as their starting defensive ends and no one behind them. Arnfelt, an undrafted rookie in 2013 from Northwestern, was on their practice squad all season until they signed him to their roster Dec. 14. He played in two of their final three games.

Nick Williams, a seventh-round draft choice, spent his rookie season on injured reserve.

That's it. They were hoping to re-sign at least one of their three unrestricted free-agent defensive ends, and that could still occur.

They also have a starting nose tackle in Steve McLendon who could move to end the way Kimo von Oelhoffen did from 2000-01 to make room for Casey Hampton. That would depend on what the Steelers come up with between now and training camp -- sign more ends or a nose tackle in free agency or draft some. The other possibility is if they believe Hebron Fangupo might be ready to take over at nose tackle. He is 6 feet, listed at 324 pounds and played in four games for them in 2013.

The Steelers made a few moves of their own in the second day of free agency. They retained a backup for an offensive line thin on depth by re-signing Cody Wallace to a three-year contract. They also kept long snapper Greg Warren for a 10th season with a one-year contract.

They lost two other UFAs to another team when Jonathan Dwyer signed with the Arizona Cardinals and tight end David Johnson signed a two-year contract with the San Diego Chargers. Johnson played in five games last season before going on injured reserve. He missed all of 2012 with an injury. He was no longer in their plans.

Dwyer was cut by the Steelers before the start of the season and then re-signed before the second game. He had only 49 carries for 197 yards last season to finish with 971 yards in an up-and-down four-year career with the Steelers.

Others were making visits. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley reportedly visited the Oakland Raiders. Hood was in Jacksonville talking with the Jaguars and so was wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who also talked to Tampa Bay.

According to the NFL, the Steelers had $6.1 million in salary cap space as of midnight Tuesday. That was before they signed Wallace and before they officially signed safeties Mike Mitchell and Will Allen, both Wednesday. So that number has to be under $4 million today.

Mitchell passed a physical for the Steelers Wednesday on the South Side, then signed his five-year, $25 million contract. According to ESPN, he will count only $2.2 million against their salary cap this year. He received a $4.25 million signing bonus with $750,000 salary this year and another $500,000 roster bonus due next month. He will receive a $2 million salary in 2015 and then annual salaries of $5 million the following three seasons.

The deal is a low-risk one for the Steelers because of the relatively low signing bonus and salaries in the first two years of the contract. If Mitchell does not work out over his first two seasons, the Steelers could cut bait with only $2.85 million of cap to account for as so-called "dead money."

Wallace, who also can play guard, started the final four games at center for the Steelers after Fernando Velasco went on injured reserve with an Achilles injury. Velasco had replaced Maurkice Pouncey after the three-time Pro Bowl center was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the opening series of the first game.

San Francisco drafted Wallace in the fourth round in 2008 from Texas A&M, and he bounced from them to Houston to Detroit and Tampa Bay over the next five seasons without ever making a start and spending time on practice squads. He played in nine games, eight of them with the Buccaneers in 2012.

When Tampa Bay cut him in August, the Steelers signed him one day later (Sept. 1).

The Steelers still might have an interest in Velasco, also an unrestricted free agent, but he has not returned to full health after his Nov. 28 injury in a game at Baltimore.

Warren has played all 10 of his NFL seasons for the Steelers after joining them as an undrafted free agent in 2005 from North Carolina. He is among a handful of players left with two Super Bowl rings.

ON THE WEB: For the latest in Steelers free agency news, check out the Steelers Blog at www.post-gazette.com

ALSO: Follow Ed Bouchette on Twitter @EdBouchette

Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.


First Published March 12, 2014 10:59 AM

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