Steelers get backup for Big Ben
PITTSBURGH – Bruce Gradkowski is coming home.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the free agent quarterback have agreed to a three-year deal that will likely make Gradkowski the primary backup behind starter Ben Roethlisberger.
The 30-year-old Gradkowski is 6-14 in his career as a starter with Oakland, Cleveland and Tampa Bay. He spent the 2011-12 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, appearing in five games. Gradkowski has completed 375 of 709 passes for 4,057 yards with 21 touchdowns and 24 interceptions in 37 career games.
“I’m thrilled to be back home,” Gradkowski said. “I always thought at some point [I’d return] … I couldn’t be happier.”
The arrival of Gradkowski, a Pittsburgh native, means the Steelers will almost certainly not attempt to re-sign longtime backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, who has struggled to remain healthy in recent years.
“I’m looking forward to working with Ben,” Gradkowski said. “He’s a competitor and I’m a competitor and I can’t wait to do what I can to help this team win.”
Leftwich, a free agent, has dealt with a series of injuries in his second stint with Pittsburgh. He made one start in 2012 but fractured his ribs in the first quarter of a loss to the Baltimore Ravens and was made inactive for Pittsburgh’s regular season finale against Cleveland.
The Steelers also released oft-injured offensive lineman Willie Colon, a move that will save them money against the salary cap. The 29-year-old played in just 13 of a possible 48 games the past three years due to a variety of health issues.
Colon missed all of 2010 with a torn Achilles but signed a five-year, $29-million contract in July 2011. He played just one game that season after tearing the triceps in his right arm in the season opener against Baltimore.
Colon returned in 2012 and moved from right tackle to left guard, where made 12 starts before sustaining a knee injury that forced him to end the year on injured reserve for the third straight season.
Colon wasn’t the only player who parted ways with the Steelers on Wednesday. Running back Rashard Mendenhall left Pittsburgh for Arizona after five roller coaster seasons. Mendenhall ran for 3,549 yards and 29 touchdowns for the Steelers but his play was sometimes overshadowed by off-the-field distractions – including controversial comments about the death of Osama bin Laden.
Any chance of Mendenhall re-signing with the Steelers likely ended late in the season when he failed to show up for a game against the San Diego Chargers after he learned he would be made inactive. He did suit up for the final game of the season but by then he’d been dropped to third on the depth chart.
The player exits could continue for Pittsburgh. Coveted cornerback Keenan Lewis visited the New Orleans Saints Wednesday. Lewis led the AFC with 23 passes defensed in 2012.
The Steelers, coming off a disappointing 8-8 season, have already lost four starters from last season – Colon, Mendenhall, wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebacker James Harrison – to free agency or in a cost-cutting move.
Pittsburgh, who has already re-signed offensive lineman Ramon Foster, wide receiver Plaxico Burress and linebacker Larry Foote, also agreed to terms with long snapper Greg Warren late Wednesday.