PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that has always primarily built through the draft, ever since Chuck Noll took the reins way back in 1969.
But the reality of the modern NFL is that free agent additions are going to be necessary to supplant what the team is able to add through the draft.
That process doesn’t always work out the way either party hopes. There are seemingly dozens of notable free agents that don’t fit with their new teams every season, and the Steelers suffered through that part of the process earlier this month.
The team signed outside linebacker Melvin Ingram before the season to serve as a rotational third linebacker behind starters Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt. That apparently didn’t sit well with Ingram, who asked for a trade due to his lack of playing time and was shipped to Kansas City for a sixth-round pick at the NFL trade deadline.
“It just didn’t work out the way we envisioned, the way he envisioned, and sometimes that happens in free agency,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said that day. “That’s really, culturally, why we build our team primarily through the draft. …
“Free agency, it makes it more cumbersome at times to get to know on a lot of levels as you’re preparing to play games.”
On Sunday, the Steelers will honor one of the team’s all-time best free agent signings, as inside linebacker James Farrior will be inducted into the team’s Hall of Honor.
Farrior was a first-round pick of the New York Jets in 1997, but came to the Steelers in 2002, and immediately cemented himself as one of the best parts of one of the NFL’s best defenses.
Farrior ended up playing 10 seasons in Pittsburgh, winning two Super Bowls, was selected to two Pro Bowls, was a two-time All-Pro and the team’s MVP in 2004.
So what was the secret sauce that made Farrior a perfect fit for the Steelers? To him, it was just the level of appreciation that the organization showed for him from the first day.
“The whole organization just welcoming me in and the player just treating me no different than any other players in the locker room, it was a more family atmosphere. They made me feel at home. The coaches were great. They all wanted me to succeed. I felt the love here. That’s why we were successful.”
Farrior joined the Bill Cowher-led Steelers, but the team still has a reputation of being a place that players enjoy playing under Tomlin.
Of course, Farrior was dropped right into a starting role in Pittsburgh, which was apparently Ingram’s issue in Pittsburgh.
That’s why you can expect the Steelers to continue to primarily build through the draft, as Tomlin said.
“When you do business with guys from the time, they’re 20 and 21, you get an opportunity to be a part of their growth and development, they get an opportunity to buy in to your system of ball or their roles in it at a very young age, and it just makes the division of labor thing a more fluid thing,” he said.