Market Ripe for Bargain Hunters

GM Kevin Colbert says the landscape for this coming free-agency period is ripe for bargain hunters such as the Steelers. And after all, it's the 10th anniversary of a similar environment. Jim Wexell explains.

Kevin Colbert granted so many interviews at this past NFL Combine that his analysis of the free-agent landscape seemed to slip right past most reporters.

But here's what the Steelers' general manager sees when the bell rings on March 13:

"I think there'll be a flurry like there always is early," he said on February 23. "Then I think there will be a lull. And then I think there'll be a big back-end market because there'll be a lot of players left without contracts after that initial wave, probably more than ever. So I think teams will be scrambling to add guys they can still fit under their cap and it'll continue to unwind all the way up until the draft."

Even as the Steelers count their nickels and dimes in the hopes of affording a winning season, it would appear Colbert's insight gives fans hope that the Steelers will dip into the market – even if just to bargain shop.

The fans would appreciate even that much this year, and what better year to do it?

For one, the Steelers are still on the precipice of winning a seventh championship.

Two, they have some very real holes on the depth chart that need to be addressed before the draft, such as tight end, linebacker and wide receiver.

And three, there's the karmic aspect to it all. I mean, doesn't it seem right to replace the greatest free-agent pick-up in team history with another such bargain the year he's been released?

Yes, James Farrior was a bargain, and he came late in the process. But it wasn't through any superior intelligence by the Steelers, that's for sure.

The Farrior saga began to unfold on March 1, 2002 when Earl Holmes decided to test the free-agent market.

Holmes had fallen out of favor with defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, who begged Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney to bring in someone else via free agency.

Lewis could not stomach putting a rookie next to Kendrell Bell, who was having a hard enough time grasping the complex system, and Lewis pleaded – even taking his case to the media – that Holmes was not the man for the job.

So the Steelers brought Kevin Hardy and Mike Caldwell in for visits, and Lewis told reporters behind the scenes that he'd even take the outside linebacker from New York, Farrior, who in spite of making 181 tackles the previous season had become lost in the free-agency hype behind Hardy and Holmes.

The process dragged on through March as Holmes visited a handful of teams and could not procure the love so many in Pittsburgh felt he deserved. Holmes eventually narrowed his choices to Cleveland and Pittsburgh as his dream of securing a $4 million bonus had dissipated.

Rooney, ever the loyalist of his own players still in their primes, had an offer for Holmes: three years for a total of $5.4 million, with a $1.7 million bonus included, and incentives for another $1.35 million.

Holmes listened to the offer and had his agent call Cleveland to leverage an even better deal.

After time passed and Rooney figured out what the Holmes camp was up to, Rooney simply said, "Call the other guy."

And so Farrior agreed to accept those same terms on April 5, nearly an entire 40-day Lenten period beyond the start of free agency.

Of course, Farrior turned into the greatest free-agent signing in team history, and the second greatest, Jeff Hartings, agreed to restructure his contract in order to fit Farrior under the cap.

But how did a player with Farrior's resume, as a 27-year-old former top-10 draft pick, last 36 days of free agency before signing so cheaply?

Well, the Steelers can hope – and they seem to believe – that the environment for a similar signing will be equally ripe beginning next Tuesday.

Finding the next Farrior of course is easier said than done, but here are a few of my suggestions:

* FB Owen Schmitt – the "runaway beer truck" of West Virginia University fame is now 27 and would be a perfect fit for not only the blue-collar Steelers fans but for a team that needs a tall fullback to pretend he can play tight end, instead of the vice-versa we've watched during the Bruce Arians years.

* TE John Carlson – was a highly regarded prospect out of Notre Dame, but the career of the 6-5, 251-pound 28-year-old stalled when he missed last season with a torn labrum. Perhaps Seattle will think it can get an injured player back cheaply, and perhaps Pittsburgh will benefit.

* ILB Joe Mays – doubtful that this underrated 27-year-old is undervalued by his coach in Denver, John Fox, but it's worth throwing Mays in here after his best season yet. If not, one of his backups, Wesley Woodyard, who turns 26 in July and made seven starts in place of D.J. Williams last season, could be a forgotten man and a cheap pickup in free agency.

Of course, the Steelers know these prospects far better than I, the casual viewer of other teams. But it appears it would be worth the effort if, as Colbert pointed out, there'll be a long and lingering free-agency period that'll cater to the bargain hunter.

And there might not be a better way to honor Farrior than to try to recapture his and the Steelers' free-agent magic from 10 years ago.

Steel City Insider Top Stories