The Pittsburgh Steelers have a reputation for building their franchise through the draft, resigning their own, and occasionally bringing in a "high character" free agent when the price is right. This offseason has been no different with the acquisition of Evander "Ziggy" Hood in the draft to provide depth and youth to the defensive line.
The Steelers have also locked up 2009 Defensive MVP James Harrison through the 2015 season. This was an uncharacteristic move by the Steelers, who shy away from signing players over 30.
However, with the little wear on the tires and the improved play by the undrafted Harrison over the past three seasons it was certainly the right move to make.
Hines Ward and Ike Taylor have restructured their own contracts; Hines signed a four-year home-town discount deal and Ike turned a large part of his salary into bonus money to free up cap space for the 2009 off season.
Despite these moves the Steelers will have some tough decisions to make when the free agency period begins next February.
Maybe the most controversial moves over the past two seasons have been assigning Max Starks the franchise tender. The tender for an offensive linemen has been well over $8 million over the past two years, devoting over $16 millions to an average LT.
Despite the increase in the salary cap figure from $116.2 million in 2008 to $127 in 2009, the Steelers are still pushing the envelope, in large part due to Starks guaranteed salary. The best possible solution is to sign Starks to a long term deal.
The Steelers have no leverage in this situation through because Starks is already guaranteed $8.5 million in 2009, and any deal he accepts would drop that number dramatically. The only way I see that happening is Starks pulls a Hines Ward and signs a team-before-myself contract.
So, what affect does this have on the Steelers over the next couple seasons? Even though the Steelers were able to lock up two of the more important free agents before their contract expires they still have a long road of decision making ahead of them.
Listed below are the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers free agents:
Willie Parker, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Deshea Townsend, Tyrone Carter, Ryan Clark, Jeff Reed, Heath Miller, William Gay, Daniel Sepulveda, Matt Spaeth, Max Starks and Darnell Stapleton.
Wow. Fans of the Steelers as well as other teams know that that is an incredible list of players. This list doesn't even included the recently signed Harrison and Ward. And guess who appears on that list for the third year in a row... that's right Max Starks.
The Steelers will not be able to keep all of these players. Some have become high-profile players for the sheer fact that they were on the No. 1 ranked defense of a year ago. Others are less known by other teams but still deserve large contracts if they are to remain in Pittsburgh.
I have compiled my top-10 most important re-signings of next offseason, as well as some explanations as to why the others may be in black and gold for the last time.
10. Deshea Townsend: Townsend will be 35 next season. That is entirely too old to be covering the Ochocinco's and Braylon Edwards of the division, no matter how he is used. The Steelers drafted two corners in the draft in Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett.
It will be better to start Ike and William Gay with these two as dimebacks, then it will be to have the liability of a 35-year-old corner on the roster. Love Deshea, but his time is up unless he takes a SERIOUS pay cut.
9. Tyrone Carter: Losing Carter and Townsend would be damaging to the seconday, however he has been a back-up and spot player for most of his Steeler career. He is great when asked to play due to injury. There is no way he and Clark are re-signed, and I think everyone can agree when I say Clark takes priority.
8. Jeff Reed: Placed here because he is a kicker. They should have no trouble signing him to a kickers contract at the end of next season.
7. Daniel Sepulveda: Same reason as listed above. Should be signed without significant cap consequences. Still a VERY important signing as was evidenced by Mitch "Ow my hamstring" Berger last season.
6. Brett Keisel: Keisel is a great player. However, no matter how good defensive ends are in a 3-4 defense, they can be replaced. A defensive lineman's jobs in a 3-4 is to plug holes and create mismatches for linebackers.
Depending on how well Ziggy matures this year he could take over for Keisel and free up cap space for other areas of need.
5. Willie Parker: Some may call me crazy. Fact of the matter is Willie's production has declined over the past two seasons and he is in a crowded backfield. He might see less carries this season with the return of Rashard Mendenhall and he made a brief protest about his lack of touches last season with Mendenhall on reserve.
Mendenhall is the future of the Steelers running game.
Also in the backfield are underrated running back Mewelde Moore and newly acquired bruiser Frank Summers. I hope Willie can work something out long-term, however I feel his price may be too high based on position and past seasons performances for the cap-strapped Steelers of 2010. Look for FWP as a possible cap causality next season.
4. Casey Hampton: Casey has been the anchor of the Steelers DL ever since I remember. He is one of the most under appreciated players at one of the most under appreciated positions in the game. Sure he will be on the wrong side of 30, but who can step in and match "Big Snack's" production?
Chris Hoke is an OK stand in but I believe Casey will sign a deal that will allow him to retire a Steeler. If he leaves, look for a drop off in both the run and pass defenses in 2010.
3. William Gay: Gay has a lot to prove this season. If he plays well the Steelers will sign him to a long term deal. If he doesn't he will have some serious competition with Lewis and Burnett in 2010.
He will most likely be re-signed beyond 2009, the only question is for how much? If he plays as he did when filling in for McFadden last season he could be a great corner with a large contract for years to come.
If he plays poorly he will not get looks from other teams and will most likely re-up with the Steelers for a reduced rate. Considering the shallow CB core and the likely loss of Deshea Townsend, lets all hope Big Play Willie Gay can step up this season. I believe he will.
2. Ryan Clark: "Ryan Clark is the hardest hitting safety in the NFL." A quote from then teammate Larry Foote after the 2009 AFC Championship game. Clark is a Steeler first and foremost. He has over come a spleen disease to return to the NFL as the starting FS on a Superbowl Winning Team.
He has never made excuses, been outspoken or made ridiculous guarantees. With the loss of Tyrone Carter and last seasons rookie-on-IR Ryan Mundy behind him, the Steelers better make Clark a priority after next season. He is severely underrated.
1. Heath Miller: Heath is also a Pittsburgh Steeler type football player. He can run-block, pass-block and catch. The only negative about Miller is that he gets so open and Ben never finds him which drives Steelers fans crazy.
Miller plays a much larger role in the offense than anyone, especially outside of Pittsburgh, realizes. He would be sorely missed. Backup tight end Matt Spaeth will also be a free agent next season which makes Millers signing a must.
Miller is not in contract negotiations, yet because of Starks cap number, however, the Steelers have acknowledged his looming free agent status.
I failed to mention Starks because I honestly have no idea what the Steelers will do with him. He has eaten up over $16 million the past 2 seasons and his productivity so far has not payed off. He may be extended before this season, before next season, or not at all.
I am hoping that the Steelers can at least sign Miller, Clark, Gay and Hampton along with the two kickers. Hampton may be lost for FWP but the depth at RB is much greater than the depth at NT. Another piece of information to keep in mind is that next season may be an uncapped year.
No one is exactly sure how it will play out but the Steelers may have a chance at signing more than anticipated based on the Rooney's decision making and player loyalty. Either way it is almost a guarantee that at lease a couple the above list of players will be wearing colors other than black and gold in 2010 and beyond.