The Steelers entered the offseason with a number of free agents on the offensive line, but very few anywhere else. The major concern was addressing a host of players that entered the 2009 season with only one year remaining on their contracts. With uncertainty on the collective bargaining agreement, many expected the team to have a quiet offseason, but it has been anything but. Here is a rundown of the signings, the non-signings, the releases, and the draft.
SteezBros is late to start its coverage of training camp. We expect to receive our fine from Coach Tomlin any day now.
O-line Continuity - After winning the Super Bowl with an O-line that was described by one analyst as the worst ever in the Super Bowl, the Steelers decided that what the line lacked was not talent, but continuity. The franchise tag was placed on Max Starks, but the team negotiated a long-term contract that negated the tag. Chris Kemoeatu flirted with the Jets, but was re-signed. Willie Colon signed a restricted free agent tender. Even jack-of-all-trades back up Trai Essex was signed for two years. Here is a quick summary of the contracts:
Starks - 4 years, $26.3 million ($10 million guaranteed)
Kemo - 4 years, $20 million
Willie Colon - 1 year, $2.2 million
Essex - 2 year, $2 million
Thoughts: Overall, the Steelers were in a tough position with the O-line. The talent wasn't great, but there wasn't much depth either. I can't say I'm that excited to invest so much money on a sub-par offensive line, but let's hope the unit improves with another year playing together. After franchising Starks, the team negotiated a great deal to provide cap relief and long term stability. Kemo didn't do much to warrant a $20 million contract, but maybe the mental errors will be eliminated after a full year starting. Keeping Colon with a RFA contract was a no brainer. The real steal might be Essex, who is a strong candidate to start at right guard.
Keeping the Core Intact - Entering the offseason, the following players had only one year left on their contract - James Harrison, Hines Ward, Heath Miller, Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, Willie Parker, and Jeff Reed. Yikes! But despite a tight salary cap, the front office went to work.
James Harrison signed a below-market, back loaded deal of 6 years - $52 million (Consider Bart Scott got $48 million over 4 years and Terrel Suggs got $63 million over 6 years with $38 million guaranteed). Heck, he earned that much with the immaculate interception. It should be fun watching Silverback abuse left tackles and quarterbacks for the rest of his career.
Hines Ward will also retire a Steeler. He signed a 4 year, $22 million contract. Ward will earn that money with his on-field performance, but the Steelers get even more through Ward's mentoring of young receivers such as Santonio, Limas Sweed, and Mike Wallace.
Heath Miller signed a contract that will make him one of the league's highest paid tight ends. The 6 year contract is worth nearly $36 million. This is one of the few contracts where the team paid a market price, but I sure am happy to keep Heath in black and gold. Now let's see if we can get him some more catches.
Thoughts: These three signings keeps part of the core together for the long term and limits the number of players that will reach free agency next year. I expect the team to re-sign Jeff Reed either this year or next. Hampton's situation will be determined by his play this year. Clark's will be determined by how much $$$ he demands. Ditto Brett Keisel. But it sounds like the team is trying to retain both. Realistically, I think Fast Willie is gone unless Mendenhall is a complete bust this year.
Depth is Important - Keyaron Fox, Arnold Frazier, Charlie Batch, Anthony Madison, and Sean McHugh re-signed to provide depth.
So Long, We'll Miss You - Bryant McFadden and Nate Washington played major roles in winning Super Bowl #6. But both were too expensive to keep. McFadden signed a two year contract, $10 million contract with Arizona and Washington signed a six year, $27 million contract with Tennessee. It's hard to fault these guys for getting the big pay day the Steelers could not provide. Both guys will be missed.
Ditto for Larry Foote. Foote had one year left on his contract, but heard the footsteps of Lawrence Timmons. Foote was probably going to lose his starting job, so he asked to be released. The team released him and he was quickly signed by his home town Detroit Lions. Foote was an important part of the Steelers defense and helped the team win two Super Bowls. We wish him well in Detroit.
Marvel Smith and his faulty back also left the team. Anthony Smith went to Green Bay. Byron Leftwich wanted a chance to start. He signed with Tampa Bay. Kendall Simmons was released. His poor play will not be missed.
Overall, the Steelers only lost three impact players -all of whom are replaceable. Foote was losing his job to Timmons anyway. Willie Gay, who split time at CB#2 last year, will take McFadden's spot. And hopefully Limas Sweed can take over for Nate.
Boring, but effective, Draft - There weren't any starting positions open for our draft picks, so the team drafted for the future. The FO ignored cries for an early-pick offensive lineman and took defensive lineman Ziggy Hood. Hood made the average age of our defensive line drop by a couple years and is already receiving rave reviews for his work ethic and motor. He'll likely rotate in a couple spots this year and potentially take over a starting spot next year if Keisel or Hampton leave. After trading away our 2nd round pick, the Steelers grabbed Guard Kraig Urbik, WR Mike Wallace, and CB Keenan Lewis. Urbik was expected to compete with Darnell Stapleton for the starting right guard position, but probably needs some time to develop. Mike Wallace, who ran a 4.3 at the combine, will provide an element of speed at the WR position, but will likely make the most impact as a kick returner. Other rookies include Joe Burnett, a CB with kick/punt returning capabilities, Frank Summers, a short yardage back, AQ Shipley, a center with short arms, and David Johnson, a blocking TE.
The draft wasn't overly exciting, but the Steelers drafts rarely are. If Hood can provide depth and Wallace or Burnett can provide a spark to special teams, this rookie class will make enough of an impact to improve the Super Bowl champs in key spots.
Goodbye Mr. Rooney - The team had two major stories regarding ownership. One, several of the Rooney brothers sold shares in the team to an investor group led by Dan and Art Rooney that also featured John Stallworth and a family that is well known in my part of rural Pennsylvania. As long as the operations are still Rooney-led, I'm a happy man.
Two, Mr. Rooney, AKA Chairman Dan Rooney, accepted the well-deserved position of ambassador to Ireland. Art Rooney has effectively been running the team for a number of years, so wholesale changes are unlikely. But the players are sure to miss Mr. Rooney, a man who is missing his first Steelers training camp in 68 years.
Distractions - Up until two weeks ago, this offseason was pleasantly devoid of distractions. Sure, Santonio Holmes was loving the spotlight, Big Ben was tearing up Bethpage Black, and the team won an ESPY for best game, but these were all fun perks of being a champion.
However, two weeks ago, an employee of Harrah's filed a civil law suit claiming that Ben Roethlisberger raped her at a celebrity golf tournament in 2008. The timing and details of the story (no criminal charges are being filed, only a civil suit) are odd, but that shouldn't take away from the seriousness of the charges. Big Ben publicly denied the claim and vowed to clear his name. This won't affect Big Ben's playing status in 2009, but may alter his mental status. We'll monitor the details of the story as they develop and see if this distraction has a serious effect on the Steez.
Ok, we're caught up. Anything we missed?