With only two weeks until footballers and fans alike will be forced into a spring and summer-long hibernation, its time to start looking forward to building teams for 2010.
In part one of a three-part series, we look at the internal free agent questions facing the Pittsburgh Steelers as they look to rebound from a disappointing 9-7 season in 2009.
The Steelers face questions on six players who will reach free agency in a matter of weeks if they aren't signed. Which players are most important as the team looks ahead? Who can they afford to part ways with? Who's waiting in the wings if they sign elsewhere?
All will be answered. Read on!
Hampton just wrapped up his 9th season in the NFL, all with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's also poised to play in his fifth Pro Bowl next Sunday in Miami.
Hampton has been the anchor for the Steelers' defensive line since he burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2001. He's big and can take on multiple offensive linemen to free up the team's blitzing linebackers.
But there are questions.
Hampton was put on the physically unable to perform list before the 2008 season because he arrived in camp out of football shape and unable to complete the necessary opening drills.
He's also had a major knee injury (2004) and consistently must be spelled by backup defensive tackles because of his lack of conditioning.
He'll also turn 33 in September. For a player his size and with his history of conditioning problems, that might be the start of the slippery downward slope.
It could also be nothing of the kind. That's the problem with Hampton every offseason: you never know what you'll get.
There are also burgeoning questions behind him. Chris Hoke has played well while spelling Hampton and also was solid while replacing him in 2004. But Hoke will be 32 this year and has never been a starter.
Travis Kirschke is also a role player more than a regular starter, so it's safe to say the team lacks depth behind Hampton.
The Steelers have too many other urgent needs to address in the draft to consider spending a top pick on the defensive line. For that reason, they can ill-afford to lose Hampton this offseason.
The team has the option to tag him with either the franchise tag or transition tag. Hampton has been quoted as saying he won't be tagged, but things may change once the Steelers look at their situation.
The best move would probably be to tag Hampton and then grab a defensive tackle in the second or third round who could eventually replace him. I would go with a transition tag and retain the rights to match any offer he receivers over the franchise tag, where he will be guaranteed a huge pay day.
Once known as "Fast" Willie, Parker has now become "Invisible" Willie. With the emergence of Rashard Mendenhall in 2009, Parker was relegated to a part-time role and his successes were limited to good halves in Cincinnati and Miami.
There's many questions surrounding Parker. After nearly leading the NFL in rushing in 2007, Parker has never been the same. A broken fibula that season seems to have robbed him of his former elusiveness, if not some of his trademark speed.
Parker is one dimensional as a back. He doesn't run well between the tackles and he is not a consistent receiving threat out of the backfield.
He's also an injury risk, missing time each of the last three seasons with various ailments.
Unlike Hampton, Parker is not a starter anymore. Like Hampton, however, he will be looking for a big pay day.
The Steelers, at first glance, don't seem to need Parker. Mendenhall is now the unquestioned feature back and Mewelde Moore slots in nicely as a third-down option.
Of their six free agents, the Steelers can likely replace Parker with the most ease. It also doesn't make sense to pay him a huge salary to be a backup and a role player.
If Parker does return, it will be at a huge discount. It will also likely be because other teams in need of a runner passed on his services.
The best move here would be to let Parker walk. If he's still around in June and looking for a roster spot, they can bring him back at a discount. Someone will likely give him the opportunity to start, however, which is exactly what he's hoping for in 2010.
Townsend was once a starter, then a nickel back, then a starter again, and then back to the nickel.
He's a steady veteran who can still make the occasional big play and is usually not found out of position.
But, Townsend is entering his 13th season and is definitely slowing down.
He's no longer an adequate coverage man and lacks the recovery speed to play zone. He's not bad in the nickel, but he's not great either. It seems like his time with Pittsburgh, which has seemed over more than once, will finally be up.
Then again, who does the team have as a veteran presence at corner besides Townsend and Ike Taylor? Worse yet, who do they have to take over in the nickel?
While Townsend is important, he's by no means irreplaceable. There are likely to be several players of his type available this offseason. The Steelers are trying to become more versatile in a secondary that was victimized continually last season and Townsend no longer fits the bill.
The best option for Pittsburgh here is to let him walk away and sign someone younger and/or less expensive. The team will likely use a high pick on a corner, so that player could also slot into the nickel package or force Ike Taylor or William Gay into the role.
Important as he has been, resigning Townsend just is not feasible at this point.
At times this season, it looked as if Clark was the only player in the Steelers secondary.
He had a good 2009 season with 110 tackles, three picks, and nine pass breakups, so his performance was not an issue and will not be an issue.
Depth, as with Hampton, is a huge issue. Ryan Mundy was not inspiring in his opportunities to play. Tyrone Carter could theoretically step into the role if Clark leaves, but that would leave the Steelers thin as well.
The other issue is Clark's play. He pairs well with Troy Polamalu and is one of the league's fiercest hitters. He's also a smart player who is hardly ever beaten or out of position.
In short, he's just the type of player the Steelers would like to have at the cornerback positions.
Resigning Clark will, as with so many players, come down to money. He will obviously be able to make more elsewhere and could sign a lucrative long term deal.
On the bright side, he wants to play here and the Steelers want him back.
This is a deal that should get done, and it is in the best interests of the Steelers that it does happen. The Steelers need a guy like Clark and have not got the ability right now to replace his production.
In short, I'd bet he's coming back.
Willie Colon is an enigma.
Some days, he looks like a franchise right tackle that will anchor the Steelers' line for the next decade.
On other days, he looks, well, lost.
The problem with Colon isn't just his consistency (or lack of it), it's his preponderance for dumb penalties. Colon has way too many false starts or motion penalties. He also has a tendency to grab when he can't block.
He's not the best pass blocker and good or fast linebackers and exterior linemen can run him over or simply get by him. That spells doom for a team with a quarterback who likes to hold the ball and a dearth of distinguished linemen.
The problem with letting him walk? You guessed it. Depth.
No one behind Colon is really any better and on a line that already struggles to perform. Losing a key piece isn't an option unless an upgrade is available.
The Steelers' best move would be to take a wait and see approach. Colon will draw interest like most tackles do, but it's reasonable to assume that the team will get an early handle on who's going to be available and can decide whether or not they want to replace Colon or try to draft their way out from under him.
I wouldn't peg him as a franchise or transition tag candidate. The team learned its lesson by doing that with Max Starks. He's also not a candidate for a long extension because of his suspect play.
Last but not least is Jeff Reed.
Heinz Field has been home to three kickers in its short history. Kris Brown couldn't cut it in the harsh wind conditions, so he was sent away. Todd Petersen was no better, so he was cut loose.
Jeff Reed came in as a rookie on a one day tryout.
Now he's ready to get paid.
If there is one player the team cannot afford to lose, it's Reed.
Forget about the kickoff length getting shorter. If necessary, I'd be willing to bet Daniel Sepulveda, the punter, could kick off.
Reed is the definition of clutch. He's mastered the difficult conditions at home and is one of the better money kickers in the NFL. He flies under the radar every year, but he's just as good as Adam Vinatieri, Matt Stover, or Nate Kaeding.
The singular question mark with Reed has nothing to do with his play. It has to do with two off-field incidents in which Reed was arrested while intoxicated.
Reed has been a model citizen since his second brush with the law. If he is as reformed as he seems, there is absolutely no reason why the Steelers should not sign him to an extension.
The best thing the team can do is get an extension done quickly. If they can't sign him before March 5, then I would not hesitate to place the franchise tag on him and then keep negotiating.
Reed wants to be here and it's likely that the team wants him back. No other kicker has managed to master the conditions at Heinz Field, so it makes sense to keep the one guy who has on your team.
Of all six players, it would be inexcusable for the team to let Reed go.
Like Clark, he's coming back.
Next time, we take a look at the needs the Steelers will need to fill in order to return to the playoffs in 2010 and also how they can best fill those needs.