ORLANDO, Fla. — Kevin Colbert said the Steelers had a plan and list of options ready to replace the players they knew they would lose in free agency or as salary cap casualties. And they have been executing that plan at a more fervent pace than past seasons.
They added to their list of free-agent signings Monday when former Buffalo Bills linebacker Arthur Moats, 26, agreed to a one-year, $795,000 contract.
Moats (6 feet 3, 250 pounds) started 20 games in four seasons with the Bills, including 12 in 2013, and had five career sacks. He was a weakside linebacker for the Bills and is versatile enough to play either inside or outside linebacker for the Steelers.
“We knew that we could lose some players and, if we did, we had alternatives lined up at positions that we thought we were going to add,” Colbert said at a break in the NFL owners meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes resort. “And, really, to this point, it’s unfolded pretty well.”
For the Steelers, the key to the whole process was signing former Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell at the start of free agency to replace Ryan Clark.
The Steelers targeted Mitchell before free agency began March 11 and is the only one of the four outside free agents who was brought in to be a starter.
Mitchell, 26, brings two elements to the back end of the defense that have been lacking — speed and the ability to pick the ball. Miller had four interceptions in his first season as a starter in 2013 for the Panthers, who ranked No. 2 in the league in total defense.
“He’s big, he’s fast and the biggest thing about the free safety position in our defense is you have to be smart,” Colbert said. “Based on the reports we had about Mike coming out of college, based on some of the things you can see him doing on film, and some of the information we had with him in the NFL, we thought he’d be able to handle it.”
The previous player the Steelers signed in free agency who was brought in to be a starter was the person Mitchell is replacing — Clark, who was signed after the 2005 Super Bowl season to replace Chris Hope.
“He’s the type of guy we like to sign as a free agent,” Colbert said. “Usually, the guys we like to get, if we do make a big investment, are guys coming off of their first contract. Well, he’s coming off of his second contract but his second contract was only a year.
“You don’t think you possibly have seen the best [from Mitchell], but, what he’s shown so far, it was exciting because he was certainly productive for a good defense.”
When the Steelers targeted Mitchell as their prime free-agent signing, Colbert said that officially sealed the departure of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who was let go March 10 but designated for a June 2 release. But Woodley’s release was a foregone conclusion when the Steelers signed Jason Worilds March 4 to a one-year transition tender of $9,754,000.
The release of Woodley and veteran Larry Foote created a void at linebacker that led to the signing of Moats, who might be best known as the player whose hit on Brett Favre caused a shoulder injury that ended Favre’s ironman streak of 297 consecutive games played.
In addition to Mitchell, the Steelers had another early target in free agency — Green Bay linebacker Mike Neal, who can play inside and outside — but he quickly re-signed with the Packers.
“Once we were able to take care of [signing Mitchell], it was going to be hard to be able to keep both LaMarr and Jason,” Colbert said. “Jason is coming off a highly productive year and LaMarr wasn’t. We had to make a tough call. Anytime you release a guy that’s part of your success, it’s never easy, especially when you think that player still has some football left in him, as we do believe with LaMarr.”
Coach Mike Tomlin was careful not to go overboard on Worilds’ production once he switched from right outside linebacker to the left side in the defense, saying he didn’t believe Worilds suddenly became a different player.
“I don’t know that he was any different; I think the animal that he faces is a different animal,” Tomlin said at the meetings. “That right tackle is a little different animal than that left tackle. If you really look at the difference in performance, I think the true answer might be there as opposed to what Jason was doing.”
Tomlin, though, quickly added, “I will acknowledge Jason has continually improved since we’ve had him. Obviously, we like that growth and development.”
The Steelers have not signed Worilds to a long-term contract, something that would help lessen their salary cap hit even more in 2014. But Colbert said part of the reason is because the Steelers concentrated on signing other free agents — their own and those from other teams — once they secured Worilds with the transition tag.
“When we use the tag, we always use it with the thought of trying to get him signed to a long-term deal,” Colbert said. “That is certainly our hope and I believe that is his wish as well. So usually when you both have the same goal, it will work out at some point.”
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com; twitter: @gerrydulac