PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers made an earlier-than-usual foray into free agency.
In the process they got younger and faster in the secondary and found a new running mate for Troy Polamalu on the back end of their defense.
The signing of Mike Mitchell -- the former Panthers safety agreed to a five-year, $25 million contract per ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter -- confirms that the Steelers weren’t just willing to address their defensive backfield through the draft.
Mitchell, who turns 27 in June, fits the profile of the defensive backs that the Steelers had inquired about prior to the start of free agency. He is young but has starting experience and will help the Steelers immediately, something they are loathe to expect out of rookies.
Mitchell spent his first four seasons with the Raiders but came into his own after signing a one-year deal with the Panthers last year. Starting on a regular basis for the first time in his career, Mitchell recorded 66 tackles while intercepting four passes and forcing a pair of fumbles in 15 games.
The 6-foot, 215-pounder will take over at free safety for Ryan Clark, and the Steelers hope they get a return from Mitchell similar to what they received from Clark after signing him to a four-year, $7 million contract in 2006.
Clark started eight seasons after signing with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent, and he and Polamalu became close friends and played as well off one another as any safety tandem in the NFL before age starting catching up with the duo.
The Mitchell signing drops the curtain on Clark’s Steelers career though he said on ESPN’s "NFL Live" on Tuesday that he intends to keep playing.
It is also the latest move that will shape the Steelers’ secondary in 2014 and the first one that should provide stability beyond next season.
The Steelers had previously re-signed Polamalu to a three-year contract and restructured cornerback Ike Taylor's contact with the 11th-year veteran accepting a $4.5 million pay cut.
Taylor’s new deal put the Steelers around $7 million under the salary cap, allowing them to sign the biggest free agent from a financial standpoint since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.
The Steelers generally wait until after the frenzied first wave of free agency before going shopping.
They have made exceptions as far as pursuing higher-profile free agents, and the Steelers hit pay dirt in the early 2000s when they signed center Jeff Hartings and linebacker James Farrior in back-to-back years.
Hartings, who signed with the Steelers in 2001, continued the line of excellence that the Steelers have enjoyed at center. Farrior, who signed with the Steelers the year after Hartings, blossomed into one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL and became one of the driving forces behind a run in which the Steelers won a pair of Super Bowls and played in three of them from 2005-10.
The Steelers didn’t do nearly as well in 2007 when they signed former Buccaneers center Sean Mahan to a five-year, $17 million contract. Mahan lasted just one season in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers traded him to the Buccaneers in 2008 after he lost his starting job to Justin Hartwig.