There were a lot of questions about what the Steelers would do with their free agents this year. Many were answered when the franchise tag was placed on Max Starks yesterday. The tag guarantees that Starks will be paid at least $8.5 million in 2009, unless he signs a long-term deal by July 15. The Steelers are now $11 million under the cap. Assuming $5 million will be spent on the NFL draft, the team has about $6 million to use on free agents.
Ten Thoughts about Free Agency
1.) James Harrison's new contract will increase his cap number in 2009, meaning:
2.) Bryant McFadden will not be a Steeler in 2009. The team can probably sign Nate Washington, Willie Colon, Trai Essex, and a couple other low price free agents.
To save cap room:
3.) Starks can sign a long-term deal, lessening his cap hit in 2009. Starks has the bargaining power here, because he can reject a low ball offer and play in 2009 for $8.5 million. I doubt the team franchised him without the intention of signing him to a longer deal.
4.) Cut several players. The most likely candidate is Larry Foote ($3 million). I'd prefer to keep Foote, but if his cap space allows the team to sign a free agent he will be out. I wouldn't mind cutting Kendall Simmons ($3 million). Stapleton didn't play extremely well, but I like him better than Simmons.
5.) Restructure contracts. Likely candidates to restructure and re-sign are Hines Ward and Casey Hampton.
Looking at the line:
6.) Two positions are set in stone. Left tackle and center. Starks and Hartwig are locked in at those positions.
7.) Willie Colon will probably be the right tackle. Maybe Tony Hills can challenge him.
8.) Interior lineman will probably be targeted in the first round. Alex Mack and Max Unger are both centers, but may be able to play guard. Duke Robinson is the top guard and will be available at pick 32. I would love to see two offensive lineman taken in the first two rounds. Preferably one to play right tackle and one to play guard. It's unlikely that two rookies will be ready to start on the line, but a man can dream. That would allow the team to release Simmons (probably not happening), and move Colon to guard (even less likely than releasing Simmons). Maybe Tony Hills develops into a right guard. It would allow a starting line of Starks, Rookie (Alex Mack/Max Unger/Duke Robinson), Hartwig, Colon, Hills/Rookie (Phil Loadholt).
9.) I hope there is an open competition at offensive line. Despite loving position flexibility, it didn't seem like Tomlin gave Starks a shot at right tackle and Colon never had an opportunity to play at the guard position. Simmons and Marvel's injuries made the argument moot, but Colon and Starks on the right side seemed like a better starting tandem than Simmons and Colon.
10.) My best guess is the line will be Starks, Rookie (Mack/Unger/Robinson) Hartwig, Simmons, Colon. Backups will be Hills, Stapleton, and Essex. I hope I'm wrong.