Most significant signing: The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t wait long to get younger and faster in the secondary as they lured Mike Mitchell away from the Carolina Panthers with a five-year, $25 million contract. Mitchell, who turns 27 in June, will replace Ryan Clark at free safety, and the Steelers are hoping they added a playmaker to a defense that intercepted 10 passes last season, tied for the third-fewest in the league. Mitchell, who picked off four passes in 2013, has the speed to cover ground in the secondary and is also a good blitzer. Did everything come together for him last season because he played on a defense that led the NFL with 60 sacks or was the jump he made a natural progression for a player with an impressive skill set? The Steelers are banking on the latter.
Most significant loss: Steelers fans grumbled about Emmanuel Sanders and his lack of consistency, but his signing with the Broncos cost them a starter and left them Kleenex thin at wide receiver. Second-year man Markus Wheaton is the most experienced wide receiver on the roster after Pro Bowler Antonio Brown but he played just 157 snaps last season. Jerricho Cotchery, who led the Steelers with 10 touchdown receptions last season, is no lock to return. The 10-year veteran is visiting Carolina and it could be a good fit for both sides. The Panthers needs wide receivers in the worst way and Cotchery badly wants the chance to play in a Super Bowl.
Biggest surprise: The Steelers probably anticipated losing Ziggy Hood but they couldn’t have predicted that Hood and Al Woods would sign with other teams so early in free agency. The losses of those defensive ends left the Steelers in need of sheet bodies at the position, and yet it didn’t seem like they were any more inclined to bring back 12-year veteran Brett Keisel for one more season. Maybe that changes if they don’t land Alex Carrington, who visited the Steelers last Friday but is also meeting with other teams before signing somewhere.
What’s next: The Steelers are less than $3 million under the salary cap, which means they have to free up more cash since the $8.58 million they saved this year by releasing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley doesn’t become available to them until after June 1. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons could be on deck as far as a contract restructure. His base salary in 2014 is $6.75 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the Steelers can lower his cap number ($11.82 million) by converting a big chunk of that into a signing bonus. The Steelers could also reduce Jason Worilds’ cap hit of $9.754 million by signing the outside linebacker to a long-term contract.