Tim Benz: Patience brings Steelers steal at safety
That worked out nicely, didn’t it?
I admit it. I was disappointed that the Steelers didn’t sign Tyrann Mathieu when he hit free agency.
A lot of that disappointment, though, was rooted in the perception that the Steelers had also already decided against signing any one of the other top-flight free agent safeties who had been sitting idle on the open market for a week.
After all, they had just interviewed Miami’s Michael Thomas, who appears to be more worthy of replacing Rob Golden as a backup than Mike Mitchell as a starter.
Plus some high-end projections at the start of free agency had the likes of Morgan Burnett and Eric Reid getting upwards of $8 million against the cap annually in a new contract.
So, with Mathieu heading to Houston, we were staring at the prospect of the Steelers having to convert Cam Sutton to safety or rely on the bargain basement of the free agent market or just pray that a first- or second-round draft pick at safety could start from Day 1 out of training camp.
Then Tuesday morning rolls around, and Burnett is a Steeler.
How did that happen?
The answer is: patience.
General manager Kevin Colbert may have just gotten the Steelers into a better spot than if they had signed Mathieu in the first place.
If you are someone who wanted to pay a higher cap hit for the younger, more splashy, perhaps bigger-play — but often injured — safety for just one year, then you wanted Mathieu.
If you wanted the more versatile, steady, veteran — but often injured — safety for multiple years at a lower rate, then you are happy the Steelers passed on Mathieu and wound up with Burnett.
The perfect world probably would’ve been getting Mathieu on Burnett’s contract. Which was reported by NFL Network to be $14.5 million over three years, with $10 million guaranteed over the first two seasons.
That wasn’t going to happen, though.
In fact, Mathieu coming on the market and signing the contract he did probably helped deflate Burnett’s payout for the Steelers. Because whether he was worthy of it or not, if Mathieu had approached free agency traditionally like Burnett and the other safeties coming off expiring deals did, his reputation would’ve made him the most sought-after player on the board at the position.
So when Mathieu inked a one-year, $7 million “prove-it” deal, dreams of four- and five-year contracts exceeding $30 million went out the window for the likes of Burnett and Reid.
“I didn’t get too wrapped up in it,” Burnett told reporters Tuesday after his signing was officially announced. “I’m confident in my skill sets, knowing that one day I would get a call.”
Colbert’s patience paid off. If he had jumped to upgrade at safety during the legal tampering period to simply get a better player than Mitchell — such as Burnett — he would’ve had to pay more to get him.
He may have been bidding against himself, as it turns out.
Now, not only are the Steelers getting potentially a better player with less verbal baggage than Mitchell, but they are doing so at roughly the same cost of the savings of ditching him.
And, as opposed to Mathieu, you don’t have to worry about filling the void next year or competing for Burnett’s services on the open market if you want to keep him.
Well played. Especially because you got a guy who was perceived to be out of the Steelers’ price range in February.
Now the Steelers just have to figure out what do with him. He played strong safety most recently and even got forced into slot corner. He played free safety earlier in his career and is believed to be capable of playing a hybrid linebacker role, too.
“In Green Bay, our defense was interchangeable,” Burnett said. “In the program it says ‘free’ or ‘strong.’ But technically if you are a safety, you’ve got to play both.”
Does Burnett bring the panache of the Honey Badger? No.
If, on March 12, you had told me the Steelers would’ve signed him to replace Mitchell, would I have been thrilled? Yes.
And if you told me it would’ve been at this price, I would’ve told you that you were insanely optimistic.
Then again, for months I’ve been telling tons of doubters that the Steelers wouldn’t be barred from addressing inside linebacker and safety in free agency just because Le’Veon Bell was on the franchise tag.
They did both in the last two days.
So maybe seeing is believing for all of us.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.