The Steelers have not typically been very active in the opening days of the NFL free agent period, choosing instead to wait until the dust settles to pick through the remains.
Coming off an 8-8 season, the Steelers decided typical isn’t going to get things done.
A day after re-signing three of their own players, linebacker Larry Foote, wide receiver Plaxico Burress and tight end David Johnson, the Steelers dipped into the free agent pool again, this time adding veteran quarterback Bruce Gradkowski with a three-year deal.
The Steelers also announced guard Willie Colon has been released, with the move officially to take place June 1 in order to account for the maximum in salary cap savings.
Meanwhile, Steelers free agent running back Rashard Mendenhall signed a one-year deal worth $2.5 million with the Arizona Cardinals, and cornerback Keenan Lewis was slated to visit the New Orleans Saints.
The 30-year-old Gradkowski, a backup the past two seasons in Cincinnati, is a Pittsburgh native and graduate of Seton-La Salle High School.
In 36 career games – 20 of them starts – he has thrown for 4,057 yards with 21 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. Three of his starts have come against the Steelers. Gradkowski won one of those games, a 2009 start while with Oakland.
The signing of Gradkowski means Byron Leftwich and/or Charlie Batch won’t return to back up Ben Roethlisberger in 2013. Both are free agents.
The Steelers also signed former Alabama star John Parker Wilson last month.
The move to release Colon became more likely when the Steelers re-signed guard Ramon Foster last weekend. The 29-year-old Colon has appeared in just 12 games since the 2009 season because of a myriad of injuries.
By designating his release after June 1, the Steelers will see a savings of $5 million. But that savings won’t go on their books until after June 1.
Had they released Colon outright now, the savings would have been just $1.2 million.
Pittsburgh also is reportedly interested in Chicago tight end Kellen Davis, who was released by the Bears Wednesday after they signed free agent Martellus Bennett.
ESPN also is reporting the Steelers have an interest in Arizona free agent running back Beanie Wells, who was replaced on the Cardinals’ roster by Mendenhall.
Mendenhall’s signing in Arizona reunites him with longtime Steelers assistant coach Bruce Arians, who was named the Cardinals’ head coach earlier this year.
A 2008 first-round draft pick of the Steelers, Mendenhall led the team in rushing in three of the past four seasons. He was limited to six games last season while recovering from a torn ACL suffered at the end of the 2011 season.