The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been big players in free agency. It’s just not their style. Part of “The Steelers Way” is to build from within, via the draft.
Free agency was supposed to doom the Steelers. Younger fans might find this difficult to believe, but for a long time any free word association game that involved the the word "Dan Rooney” would likely elicit a response of "cheap."
And if Steelers Nation did suffer through the agony of watching Pittsburgh draft and develop promising stars such as Chad Brown or Willie Williams only to lose them to free agency, Dan Rooney also pioneered the concept of locking up key stars before their contracts became due.
And, contrary to popular perception, they’ve deftly dipped into the free agent market to fill much-needed holes or reinforce key roster areas. Here is a look at the Steelers All Time offensive free agent team.
To be eligible to make this list, the player must have been a "Plan B free agent" or a post Freeman McNeil unrestricted free agent prior to joining the Steelers – unrestricted rookie free agents are not eligible, having been duly recognized in a previous edition of the Colbert Record.
The Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Free Agent Offense:
(Click on the highlighted titles to go directly to position area)
Quarterbacks – Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch
Running Backs – Duce Staley, Erric Pegram
Fullbacks – John L. Williams
Offensive Tackle – Flozell Adams, Oliver Ross
Guard – Duval Love
Center – Jeff Hartings
Guard – Rick Tylski
Offensive Tackle – Will Wolford
Wide Receivers – Yancey Thigpen, Courtney Hawkins, Jerricho Cotchery
Tight End – Mike Mularkey
Steelers All Time Free Agents: Quarterbacks
Tommy Maddox failed to realize the greatness he flashed in 2002. But Maddox saved that season, and gave Pittsburgh one of its most electrifying playoff wins in history.
Clearly, one of Kevin Colbert’s most astute free agent pick ups.
Detroit surprised the NFL in July 2002 by cutting Charlie Batch, but Kevin Colbert wasn’t caught napping, snapping him up instantly. Since then Batch has helped stabilize the Steelers depth chart at quarterback for a decade.
Honorable Mention: Mike Tomczack
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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Running Backs
The name “Erric Pegram” likely elicits a response of “who?” It shouldn’t.
When Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe cast off the formidable but flaky Barry Foster they brought Pegram in from Atlanta as an insurance policy.
When Bam Morris became more interested in illegal activities than winning football games, Cowher and Donahoe’s investment handsome dividends to the tune of 831 yards in just 11 starts as Pegram saved the season.
When Amos Zereoue decided he couldn’t share the backfield with Jerome Bettis, the Steelers brought in Duce Staley. Staley started the season like gang busters until injuries got the better of him.
Injuries aside, Staley teamed with Bettis to give the Steelers Nation a glorious afternoon of smash-mouth football vs. the Jets in the 2004 Divisional Playoffs.
Perhaps his biggest contribution came in 2005, when he came off the bench, along with Charlie Batch, to lead the Steelers to victory over the Packers – a victory that became crucial to the Steelers ability clinch a playoff spot and proceed to Super Bowl XL.
Honorable Mention: Mewelde Moore
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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Fullback
Bill Cowher’s arrival signaled a sea-change in the Steelers rushing philosophy. Prior to 1992, both the fullback and the halfback carried the ball. Bill Cowher and Ron Erhardt changed that, much to Merril Hoge’s frustration.
John L. Williams
But the ball carrying fullback saw an Indian summer during 1994 and 1995 as John L. Williams took over the position. Williams ran the ball 69 times in 1994 – an astronomical number for a fullback in the post-Noll era. Injuries dropped Williams numbers in 1995, but they didn’t prevent John L. Williams making several critical plays.
The 1995 Steelers mid-season rally began the Jacksonville Jaguars traveled to Three Rivers Stadium and ended in Super Bowl XXX. The Jacksonville game was also the day that John L. Williams rejoined the line up. Those two events are no coincidence.
Williams also make some critical catches in the AFC Championship game that the Steelers won by the skin of their teeth. Again, no coincidence.
Honorable Mention: Tim Lester
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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Offensive Tackles
Oliver Ross will never be considered a “world beater” and in fact struggled when injuries forced him into the starting line up in 2003. But Ross rebounded to start 16 games on the 2004 squad that won 16 straight games.
When Willie Colon was injured in the 2010 off season, Flozell Adams was the best free agent on the market. The Steelers approached him. At first he said "no." But Flozell wanted a shot at a Lombardi, and Mike Tomlin convinced him the Steelers could get him that. The Steelers signed Flozell Adams. They didn't get him the championship, but together they got close.
Will Wolford was in fact brought in to play guard following the departure of Leon Searcy and the retirement of Tom Newberry after Super Bowl XXX. Wilford played his best football at guard and was supposed to stay there when the Steelers let another offensive tackle, John Jackson, go via free agency the thought was that Jamain Stephens, Paul Wiggins, or Chris Conrad could take his place.
But by the middle of the 1998 preseason it was clear none of these men were up to the task, and Will Wolford stepped in at left tackle, providing the Steelers with some stability at this much-needed position.
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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Guards and Centers
Duval Love is the first of two the Steelers “Plan B Free Agents” to make this list. Signed following the 1991 season as a stop gap measure in light of Terry Long’s substance abuse problems, Love bolstered an offensive line on an upswing and blossomed into a Pro Bowler in 1994. A great, below the radar screen pick by Tom Donahoe.
The departure of John Jackson, the injury to Justin Strzelczky and the total bust that was Jamain Stephens threw the Steelers offensive line into havoc in 1998 and 1999.
One of the moves that Kevin Colbert made to add some stability to the line was to sign guard Rich Tylski. Tylski only played for two years and only started for one full year, but the Steelers offensive line was markedly improved in 2000-2001 and Tylski helped make that happen.
Honorable Mentions: Tom Newberry and Todd Kalis
It is not easy to follow in the footsteps of Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, and Dermonti Dawson, but Jeff Hartings came from Detroit, switched from guard to center, and not only lived up to the Steelers legacy there, but added to it winning Pro Bowl honors in 2004 and 2005.
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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Wide Receiver
Most people think Yancey Thigpen is a home grown Steeler, but Thigpen was actually drafted by and played for the San Diego Chargers in 1991. In 1992 Thigpen got cut in training camp, cleared waivers and was on the street when Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher brought him in during the middle of the 1992 season.
Thigpen played on special teams in 1992 and it was only in 1993 that he got to play sparingly at wide reciever only catching 9 balls. Funny thing was, 3 of them were for touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt and receivers coach Chain Gailey didn’t find that to be a coincidence Thigpen ascended into rotation on the starting lineup in 1994 and became a full time starter before year’s end.
Thigpen had standout seasons in 1995 and 1997 although injuries marred his 1996 effort, as they did the rest of his career in Tennessee.
Courtney Hawkins. This is one player who drew his share of ire form the fans because he wasn’t a particularly good starting wide receiver. The rub is that he was never supposed to be a starter. Brought in 1997 from Tampa Bay to replace Andre Hastings, Hawkins performed admirably that year as third down receiver – the role he was brought into play.
In 1998, with Thigpen gone, Charles Johnson under achieving, and Will Blackwell failing to live up to his potential, Hawkins became the number one receiver. Hawkins contributed as a part-time starting in 1999 and took over when injuries ended Plaxico Burress rookie season in 2000.
This selection is one of the Steelers most recent free agent selections, arriving during 2011 training camp. He hasn’t compiled a ton of eye catching statistics. He hasn’t started many games. But Jerricho Cotchery has responded when called upon, making tough catches and otherwise coming up with the ball when the team needs him.
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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Tight End
Steelers fans under 30 no doubt only remember Mike Mularkey from his “Inspector Gadget” tour as offensive coordinator from 2001 to 2003. However Mularkey was the Steelers first “Plan B Free Agent” signing in 1989, when Tom Donahoe brought him in from Minnesota. Mularkey only caught 22 passes in the Steelers storybook 1989 season, but that was 20 more than his predecessor had caught.
Mularkey played a strong number two tight end to rookie Eric Green in 1990, but his knees began to get the better of him, and he was out after 1991. Still, Mularkey was a great pick up on Donahoe’s part.
Honorable Mention: Jonathan Hayes
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