With the ongoing and uglier-by-the-day lockout battle raging, the continual speculation over free agents and free agency is about all that can be done in the NFL. Teams and fans can do nothing but speculate, hope and plan until a settlement is reached.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, never usually big players in free agency, could be active this year if they cannot retain some of their starters and also will need to fill a few needs through the free-agent market.
Here's a look at five free agents the Steelers might pursue (excluding players who were with the team in 2010) and the odds on each donning the black and gold for 2011 and maybe beyond.
We've excluded free agents who played in Pittsburgh last season, so Ike Taylor is out. Regardless of the drafting of Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, the Steelers are in the market for a corner. If they can't get Taylor back under contract, they have two choices.
The could pursue Nnamdi Asomugha and throw big money at him. That's not the Pittsburgh way, so let's not drink that Kool-Aid. Carlos Rogers is a Taylor-like player who could be a solid contributor in Pittsburgh. He also figures to be more affordable than some of the other options.
The Steelers are going to make a push for Taylor first. If interest is still mutual, he may return. Their pursuit of him could hurt their chances with a guy like Rogers. Despite his shortcomings (similar to Taylor's), he's going to be a hot commodity.
A lot hinges on Taylor. If he quickly signs elsewhere, I'd be shocked if the team didn't immediately do everything possible to land Rogers.
To be blunt, the Steelers need to find a kicker. I'm not sold on the theory that they could re-sign Shaun Suisham and be okay. Suisham was generally solid, but he isn't a strong kicker and he has a poor history. He's also going to be looking for good money. The Steelers may not be willing to commit to him after they passed (wisely) on locking up Jeff Reed before 2010.
Enter Jasper, a rookie free agent with a strong leg. Rookie kickers that aren't drafted rarely get big paydays in the NFL, so he should be an easier sign. Also, the experienced free-agent crop of kickers looks very weak. Who excites you there that would be reasonable? Matt Prater? Sorry, I'll pass.
I'd say that this is almost a lock, at least as someone the Steelers will pursue. The kicking woes have been largely ongoing since the team moved to Heinz Field. Getting someone like Jasper could solve them for a decade or more.
Jasper could have been drafted, so what might hurt the Steelers is that he could be wooed by another team. But with the likes of David Akers and Adam Vinatieri out there, he may fall through the cracks.
Chris Hoke and Nick Eason are free agents. Eason's work as the backup at defensive end will likely be taken by Cameron Heyward. Ziggy Hood and Aaron Smith figure to rotate regularly at one spot, meaning that the team will only need Heyward to work behind Brett Keisel.
Behind Casey Hampton, they have no one to replace the work of Hoke. Watson fits the bill. He's been a mostly disappointing player in Arizona, but the Steelers have worked wonders before and their defensive system is based less on defensive linemen making big plays. Watson might fit much better here.
Why not? Watson doesn't figure to be hotly pursued by anybody. He's not going to ask for big money either since he's already been a backup. The Steelers like underdog players as well and have had success with Michigan defensive players in the past (see LaMarr Woodley among others).
If the team chooses to get younger and not pursue Hoke or Eason, they could view Watson as the prime candidate. It's a shot in the dark, but a probable one.
Willie Colon is a free agent. Flozell Adams was solid last year. Adams figures to be back, but he's going to be a little expensive for a player his age. The team could choose to cut ties with him if they can't restructure the deal.
Enter Barnes. He's not a flashy player and isn't among the marquee players at the position. The Steelers don't figure to pursue anybody among the top players at each position, so an under-the-radar guy like Barnes might be more likely. He's solid and could be better after working with line coach Sean Kugler.
It depends on what the Steelers are thinking. If they're high on Marcus Gilbert and Keith Williams being able to contribute soon and can restructure Adams' deal, they aren't going to look outside. If they want some insurance, they might look in on Barnes
It also depends on what Barnes is looking for. If he wants long-term years or bigger money than he's worth, he won't be in their plans. The Steelers seem to make an underrated signing each year. Maybe he's the guy in 2011.
Keyaron Fox is a free agent. His inconsistencies and his desire to start will almost surely keep him out of Pittsburgh's plans. His departure doesn't kill the depth at inside linebacker, but the Steelers would likely like to have another experienced hand like Fox.
Add in that Larry Foote was unimpressive in his return season. Sims isn't a marquee name and has never lived up to his draft status or college talent level. He could, however, be another player who benefits from Dick LeBeau and Kevin Butler's tutelege.
The odds are long. The team drafted Chris Carter and also have Stevenson Sylvester on the roster. It comes down to how they feel about Sims and how they feel about Foote. I think they might look for one more linebacker on the free-agent market. Sims seems like a low-risk/high-reward type of player.
The Steelers aren't going to spend big money at this position. With LaMarr Woodley's contract situation up in the air, however, it might make sense to have someone waiting in the wings in case they can't lock him up beyond his franchise tag this year.