The wide receiver signed a $21 million, five-year contract Saturday with the Tennessee Oilers, the Steelers' AFC Central rival, becoming the highest-paid receiver in NFL history.
Thigpen said he knew last season that his days in Pittsburgh were numbered.
"Everyone knows Pittsburgh's situation when it comes down to free agents, and my situation, I feel, wasn't any different from anyone else," he said.
The Oilers had a wide receiver at the top of their free agent shopping list, and they wanted Thigpen, the best of this year's free agent receiver crop with 79 catches for 1,398 yards in 1997.
"For our team, this guy was very, very important, and we were fortunate enough to go out and get him," general manager Floyd Reese said.
Reese said they used the recent five-year, $15 million contracts given to receivers like Detroit's Johnnie Morton and Cincinnati's Darnay Scott as a base for negotiations.
The Oilers, who lost former Steeler linebacker Chad Brown to Seattle during free agency last year, didn't want to let Thigpen slip through their fingers. Reese talked to Thigpen's agent, Jordan Woy, past midnight Friday, and the agreement was reached Saturday morning.
At least 12 other teams had lined up to talk with Thigpen since free agency began Friday, including Baltimore and Dallas, where Thigpen's former offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, is now the head coach. But Thigpen agreed to schedule the Oilers for his first visit after being lobbied by Tennessee running back Eddie George and safety Blaine Bishop during the Pro Bowl.
"I flew with Eddie, so we basically talked all the way over to Hawaii. Eddie knew the situation and what the Oilers were looking to get this off-season," Thigpen said.
The Oilers hope the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Thigpen can provide a much-needed threat to their anemic passing attack.
They averaged 156 yards a game passing, good for 15th in the AFC. Tight end Frank Wycheck wound up as the Oilers' top receiver for a second straight season with 63 catches as Willie Davis and Chris Sanders combined for 74 receptions.
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