PITTSBURGH — Steven Nelson is thrilled to be here, which is the stance virtually every free-agent signee takes at his introductory news conference. But an endorsement from the new Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback seems timely after a turbulent six months.
“The vibe here around here is very chill. Guys come to work and it’s like a family,” said Nelson, who signed a three-year, $25.5 million deal with the Steelers after four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. “I’ve heard great things already. I don’t really pay attention to the crap that’s in the media.”
The Steelers want — scratch that, need — players who want to be in Pittsburgh, because lately it’s trendy to find a way out of here.
Le’Veon Bell forced his way into free agency in pursuit of guaranteed money, even though the team is convinced Bell did not take its five-year, $70 million offer last offseason because he wanted a fresh start elsewhere.
Antonio Brown forced a trade, also in pursuit of guaranteed money, though his issues with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, coach Mike Tomlin and the organization played a role.
Morgan Burnett forced his April 1 release in pursuit of a role as a starting safety instead of dime linebacker, though some inside the building believe Burnett suffered from culture shock after eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers.
The parallel among all three: They wanted out and got their way.
“Whatever move we make with any player, it’ll be for our benefit and our benefit only,” general manager Kevin Colbert said in February.
The Steelers can say these were unique circumstances that won’t permeate the locker room, and that’s probably true. But multiple high-level defections in one offseason is hardly a sustainable model for success.
While Burnett’s departure is more in line with routine NFL business — signing Mark Barron to a two-year, $12 million contract made Burnett expendable anyway — there’s reason to believe the team will learn from how it handled Brown and Bell.
The Steelers didn’t have to tag Bell in back-to-back years only to remain unmoved on guaranteed money during negotiations.
The Steelers didn’t have to trade Brown. They could have kept him on the roster and fined him during training camp until he showed up ready to work. Clearly the Steelers didn’t want that distraction, but they gave up the game’s best receiver for a third- and fifth-round pick — less than ideal, even for a player who sabotaged his own trade value with bizarre behavior.
Perhaps guaranteed money attached to the last three years of Brown’s deal would have kept him in Pittsburgh. Either way, the Steelers clung to their traditional contract model, and two high-profile players challenged it.
In the aftermath, the Steelers are hoping for calmer waters. They know Pittsburgh is still a desirable place to work. Barron said Tomlin’s blunt approach to coaching was a draw for him. New receiver Donte Moncrief cited the chance to play with Roethlisberger as a catalyst for his two-year deal.
The Steelers will want more of these stories in the foreseeable future, so much so that team president Art Rooney II told a small group of longtime Pittsburgh beat writers that it’s time to move on from Brown and Bell.
“We’re excited about the players we have and [are] going to have in the building and looking forward to getting started on 2019,” Rooney said.