For a team that won the Super Bowl, the Steelers are in great shape heading into the offseason. Only two offensive or defense starters are unrestricted free agents and the team is approximately $20 million under the salary cap. Other than a shaky offensive line and an aging defensive line, the Steelers have few areas to address in the off season. The team will return 10 starters from the best defense in the league and Big Ben is signed for the better part of the next decade.
Historically, the Steelers focus on re-signing their own players before moving on to free agency. As part of this philosophy, they nearly always lock up key players before they enter the final year of their contracts. And that's where the team runs into some problems. Here are the guys with one year left: Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, Willie Parker, Larry Foote, James Harrison, Ty Carter, Ryan Clark, Hines Ward, Justin Hartwig, Deshea Townsend, Heath Miller, and Jeff Reed. We'll address these players in the next post. So let's focus on the free agents heading into this offseason.
CB: Bryant McFadden, Fernando Bryant
QB: Charlie Batch & Byron Leftwich
OG: Chris Kemoeatu
OT: Max Starks, Marvel Smith, & Trai Essex
WR: Nate Washington
LB: Arnold Harrison , Keyaron Fox
DL: Orpheus Roye
P: Mitch Berger
OT: Willie Colon
FS: Anthony Smith
CB: Anthony Madison
FB: Carey Davis
TE: Jon Dekker
If I were Kevin Colbert, my first focus would be on Bryant McFadden. If McFeezy were to re-sign, the Steelers secondary would be set for 2009. Ike & McF. starting. Gay and Townsend in the nickel and dime. Polamalu and Clark at safety with Ty Carter as a backup. Unfortunately, McFadden may be the one free agent in this class that could attract some major suitors. Solid cornerbacks rarely hit the open market, especially ones from the #1 and Super Bowl winning defense. McFadden has stated that he wants to stay in Pittsburgh, but his agent Drew Rosenhaus won't be afraid to test the open market. If McFadden is willing to take #2 CB money, the Steelers will be happy to have McFizzle back. But with plenty of Steelers stars entering the last year of the contract, Pittsburgh won't break the bank for McFantastic.
My number two priority would be Nate Washington. Before this year, Nate was better known for the dropsies (which he passed on to Limas Sweed), but he developed into a nice #3 WR and deep threat. He had four or five straight games with 40+ yard catches this season. I'm hoping that his lack of huge stats will limit interest in him on the open market. The main reason the Steelers need to make Nate a priority is the lack of depth at WR. Without Nate, the only receivers on the team with experience are Ward and Holmes. Limas Sweed will move into the #3 WR spot. After Sweed, there are literally no WRs on the roster. If Nate isn't signed, the Steelers will have to target an experienced wide receiver in free agency. I'd rather have Nate. He's productive, knows the system, and has good potential.
The third priority is the offensive linemen. Three starters on the O-line, the former starting LT, and the top back up are looking at free agency. Colon will be tendered as a restricted free agent and no other team will give up draft picks to get him away from the team. My guess is that Marvel Smith is gone. A recurring back injury is not a desirable trait in a left tackle. Essex will probably be brought back as a cheap back up. Kemo is gone unless he can be re-signed very cheaply. He has potential, but was maddeningly inconsistent. Stapleton has starting experience and Kendall Simmons will return from injury. Two inconsistent starting guards are enough. I think the Steelers draft an interior lineman in the first round to bolster the guard spot. Max Starks is the most complicated situation. He has started on two Super Bowl winning teams. He has experience at right and left tackle, but he is only an average player that sometimes struggles with weight issues. That said, he is the only player on the team with experience at left tackle. With the 32nd pick in the draft, the top tackles will be picked before the end of the first round. Tony Hills, a 4th round draft pick, is still a developmental player. The Steelers probably don't want to enter 2009 without a left tackle on the roster, so they probably want Max Starks back on the team (note: there are rumors that Tomlin doesn't like Starks, but Colbert does. How else do you explain Colon starting at RT over Starks?), but only at an affordable price. I don't think the front office wants to repeat last year's mistake and make Starks the second highest player on the team. There wasn't much outside interest in Starks last off season. If that trend continues, we'll re-sign Starks and return our two starting tackles from this year. Imagine another year of watching Starks and Colon. Oy! One intriguing thought is the possibility of signing Marvel Smith to a short, incentive laden deal, re-sign Starks, move Colon to guard (his more natural position), and have a starting line of Smith, Colon, Hartwig, Simmons, and Starks. It's hardly a great line, but if we add a draft pick or two that line could be much improved. Then again, these players were on the roster at the beginning of the season and Tomlin refused to move Colon to guard. Probably just a pipe dream.
The other players aren't as high profile. As long as they sign cheaply, here are my recommendations:
Re-sign: Batch, Fox (good special teams player and back up LB), A. Harrison, A. Smith (cheap tender offer), Madison
Let walk: Leftwich (he wants to start), Dekker, C. Davis (probably will be re-signed b/c Arians has a hard-on for fullbacks that can't block very well, but excel at catching 1 yard passes), Berger, Roye, Bryant