Steelers free agency so far: A little gain, a lot more pain
Running back Rashard Mendenhall, a former 1,000-yard rusher with the Steelers, is leaving to rejoin former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in Arizona.
Big Ben's new backup Bruce Gradkowski, then with the Cincinnati Bengals, talks with Roethlisberger after a 2011 game at Heinz Field. Gradkowski, who grew up in Dormont signed a three-year deal Wednesday with the Steelers.
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The Steelers signed two players, released one and saw another depart as Day 2 of free agency unfolded. It was quite busy for a team that often sits on its hands early in this market.
Veteran quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who grew up in Dormont and played at Seton-LaSalle High School, signed a three-year contract to return home to play for the Steelers.
They later re-signed one of their own, long-snapper Greg Warren, who has spent his entire seven-year career with the Steelers.
They released Willie Colon, their starting left guard last season who spent more time nursing injuries than blocking opponents the past three years. And Rashard Mendenhall, their star-crossed No. 1 draft pick in 2008, signed a one-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
Gradkowski, 30, played for five NFL teams since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted him in the sixth round from Toledo in 2006. He was a backup for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2012.
Over seven seasons, Gradkowski completed 52.9 percent of his passes (375 of 709) for 4,057 yards, 21 touchdowns, 21 interceptions and a 65.8 passer rating.
His signing at least spells the end of Byron Leftwich's days with the Steelers and could affect those of longtime backup Charlie Batch. The Steelers still might look for a quarterback in the draft. Besides starter Ben Roethlisberger, they also recently acquired John Wilson, 27, off waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"Whatever I need to do to help this team win, I am going to do," Gradkowski said. "I am looking forward to working with Ben. He's one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL ... there's a great franchise quarterback here. To get to play with him and be a part of this is amazing. I haven't had that yet, to be somewhere where that guy is the guy. Ben is the guy."
Perhaps the best game of Gradkowski's career came at Heinz Field when he led the Oakland Raiders to a 27-24 upset of the Steelers by throwing for 308 yards and three touchdowns, including the winner with nine seconds left.
Gradkowski played in three games last season for the Bengals and completed 5 of 11 passes.
His brother, Gino Gradkowski, earned a Super Bowl ring as a rookie backup center for the Ravens last season. He's expected to move into the starting job this year after the retirement of Matt Birk.
By releasing Colon, they will create $5.5 million of salary cap space for this year, although that savings will not come until June 1. They will need that room ultimately for their 2013 draft class, who count against the cap only after they sign a contract.
Colon was their starting left guard last season, but, after starting 12 games, he was placed on injured reserve for the third consecutive year (knee injury). He missed all of the 2010 season with an Achilles injury and all but one game of the 2011 season with an arm injury.
Colon started 62 games at tackle and guard for the Steelers in seven seasons after they drafted him in the fourth round from Hofstra in 2006.
A source close to Colon said he would have accepted a pay cut, but the Steelers never asked him to do so. He was scheduled to earn a $5.5 million salary this year. Colon declined to comment when reached by phone.
Mendenhall, only 25 after five NFL seasons with the Steelers, will be reunited in Arizona with his former offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, Bruce Arians, the new head coach of the Cardinals. Mendenhall ran for 182 yards on 51 carries in a 2012 season marred by injuries and his own defection from the team. He was an unrestricted free agent.
His pro career started on a dubious note after the Steelers drafted him with the 23rd overall pick from Illinois. His shoulder was broken in his fourth game and first NFL start when Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis slammed into him. Mendenhall went on injured reserve, and the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.
He bounced back strong from that injury, leading the Steelers with 1,108 yards rushing in 2009 and 1,273 yards in 2010, scoring a combined 20 touchdowns in those two seasons. His fourth-quarter fumble at the Green Bay 36 in Super Bowl XLV cost the Steelers a scoring opportunity in a 31-25 Packers victory.
That play, and his subsequent writings on Twitter about the death of Osama bin Laden three months later hurt his popularity with Steelers fans.
He wrote: "What kind of person celebrates death? It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side ..."
Mendenhall also questioned how jet airplanes could take down the Twin Towers in New York.
Nevertheless, he was on his way to a possible 1,000-yard season again with the Steelers in 2011 when his ACL was torn on his eighth carry in the regular-season finale against Cleveland. He finished with 928 yards. The Steelers placed him on injured reserve, and he did not return to play until the fourth game last season.
He played only two games before an Achilles injury knocked him out of the next four games. He played in two more before losing his starting job and fell behind Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. When he was informed he would not be active for the Dec. 9 game against San Diego, Mendenhall left and did not stay for the game as the Steelers require. Coach Mike Tomlin suspended him for the following game.
RB Wells takes physical
The Steelers had running back Beanie Wells in for a physical this week. Wells, drafted in the first round by Arizona in 2009 from Ohio State, was released Monday by the Cardinals. His career, as with Mendenhall's, has been pocked with injuries, particularly to both knees.
First Published March 14, 2013 12:01 am