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Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers free agency grades | The big one got away

David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

The Pittsburgh Steelers rarely make a splash in free agency, and they continued that trend this offseason. However, they tried.

The Steelers pursued inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower before he eventually re-signed with the New England Patriots. They were hoping to sign Hightower to replace Lawrence Timmons, who signed with the Miami Dolphins after spending his entire 10-year career with the Steelers.

Instead, the Steelers plan to move four-year veteran Vince Williams into the starting lineup, barring a surprise move during the NFL draft next week.

“We made an attempt, it didn’t work,” general manager Kevin Colbert said last month at the owners’ meetings about Hightower. “We’re fine. We move on. Vince Williams, we were very confident in Vince. That’s why we signed him to the extension last year. So that if we got to this point and Lawrence had left us, and we didn’t sign anybody from the outside, Vince was certainly capable of stepping up and being the next guy.”

The Steelers look for their free-agent class to provide depth. Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh has an outside shot at starting but defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, running back Knile Davis and wide receiver Justin Hunter will serve in reserve roles.

Here is a look at the signings and how the moves grade out.

Tyson Alualu, DE

Grade – C

Signed to a two-year, $6-million contract with a $1.25-million signing bonus and $1.75 million guaranteed, Alualu is expected to be an upgrade over Ricardo Mathews, who served as the top backup defensive end to Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt last season.

Alualu has never lived up to his pedigree as the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft. In 110 games, including 88 starts, for the Jacksonville Jaguars, he totaled 258 tackles, 17.5 sacks, 6 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles.

Knile Davis, RB

Grade – C

Davis is expected to serve as Le’Veon Bell’s primary backup, though the Steelers haven’t completely ruled out re-signing DeAngelo Williams. Davis, the Kansas City Chiefs’ third-round draft pick in 2013, has played in 57 games in his four NFL seasons. Davis, 25, spent the 2013-15 seasons with Kansas City before stints with the Green Bay Packers (two games) and Chiefs (nine games) in 2016.

Coming off a season in which he rushed 18 times for 28 yards and caught 5 passes for 25 yards, none of Davis’ one-year, $775,000 contract is guaranteed.

“There is still a lot of football left in him,” Colbert said. “His age, his size, his speed and his kick-return production were very interesting to us.”

Justin Hunter, WR

Grade – C+

Hunter was signed as deep-threat insurance in the event Martavis Bryant was not reinstated after being suspended for the 2016 season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. While it now seems likely Bryant will be back in 2017, Hunter, 25, did see 4 of his 10 catches go for touchdowns and had 189 receiving yards in 12 games with the Buffalo Bills last season.

Hunter has 78 career receptions for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns since being selected by the Tennessee in the second round of the 2013 draft. He received a $30,000 signing bonus as part of a one-year, $855,000 contract.

David Johnson, TE

Grade – C

Johnson was the Steelers fourth tight end last season behind Ladarius Green, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble. However, Johnson can be used in the H-back position, the coaches love his blocking, and he is not a budget buster after agreeing to a two-year, $2.05-millon contract with $235,000 guaranteed.

Steven Johnson, LB

Grade – C

Johnson appeared in just six games in his first season with the Steelers last year before going on injured reserve with an ankle injury. The five-year veteran will have to prove himself in training camp as his one-year, $855,000 contract contains no guaranteed money.

James Harrison, LB

Grade – A

It’s been some retirement for Harrison, the Steelers all-time sack leader. His two-year, $3.5-million contract is his second with the Steelers since he held an official retirement press conference in August 2014. It is also a bargain considering he had 5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in 2016.

(Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire)

The 38-year-old will enter his 15th season in the NFL, all but one with Pittsburgh. The Steelers released him in 2013 when he refused to take a pay cut, and he played that season with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Landry Jones, QB

Grade – C

Ben Roethlisberger’s backup returns on a two-year, $4.4-millon contact after testing the open market and finding little interest. Jones, who has made just 4 career starts in four seasons, gets $600,000 in guaranteed money.

Coty Sensabaugh, CB

Grade – C

Sensabaugh was signed to a two-year, $2.6 million contract with $425,000 guaranteed. That is a far cry from the three-year, $14.5-million deal he signed with the Los Angeles Rams last offseason. The Rams released him five games into the season, and he finished the year with the New York Giants.

The Steelers hope they can get Sensabaugh back on track and will give him a shot to unseat either William Gay as the slot corner or Ross Cockrell on the outside.

Greg Warren, LS

Grade – A

Warren has been a reliable long snapper since 2005, and the Steelers quickly re-signed him to a one-year, $1-million contract at the end of last season.

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