The Steelers were dealt a loss Thursday they didn’t expect when wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery decided to accept a two-year contract offer reportedly worth $5 million from the Carolina Panthers rather than return to Pittsburgh.
The news wasn’t all bad Thursday. Team president Art Rooney II said the NFL informed the team it will not be forced to forfeit a draft pick for head coach Mike Tomlin straying onto the field during a kick return by Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones last season. Tomlin was fined $100,000 by the league for the infraction, and the league said at the time it might also take a draft pick as part of the penalty.
For a team that appears to have big holes at a number of positions, every draft pick will be critical.
An 11-year veteran, Cotchery was a player the Steelers wanted to retain, especially after losing wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to Denver last Sunday.
But the Panthers were desperate to add a receiver after cutting longtime star Steve Smith last week and losing Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon in free agency. Carolina front-loaded Cotchery’s deal, giving him a total of $3.5 million this season.
The Steelers currently have about $2.5 million in salary cap space remaining, though they could create about $4 million in cap room with a restructure of linebacker Lawrence Timmons’ contract.
Cotchery, who signed a two-year, $3-million deal with the Steelers in 2012, had 46 receptions for 602 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns in 2013, despite essentially being the Steelers’ No. 3 receiver behind Antonio Brown and Sanders.
All 10 of Cotchery’s touchdown catches came from inside the 20-yard line.
Cotchery starred at North Carolina State, where he met his wife, who is from North Carolina and still has many relatives in the area. Cotchery said that was a factor in his decision along with a desire to play with another top quarterback.
“First and foremost as a receiver, you look at the quarterback position,” he said. “I left Ben Roethlisberger. If you’re going to leave a quarterback like that, you better be sure that you’re going to go to someone who can play at a high level. I feel we have that here with Cam Newton. That’s what I looked at.”
With Sanders and Cotchery gone, the Steelers are now nearly as thin at the receiver position as the Panthers.
Currently, Brown, who is coming off his second Pro Bowl appearance in the past three seasons, Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye are the only receivers with NFL experience on the roster. Wheaton and Moye have a combined eight career receptions, all coming last season.
New Orleans free agent receiver Lance Moore visited with the team Wednesday and remains an option to help repalce Cotchery, though the Steelers might look to next month’s draft for help.
Another free agent, running back Maurice Jones-Drew met with the Steelers for a second consecutive day but left without a contract. The team will remain in touch with his agent, Adisa Barkari, who also represents Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell.