Pittsburgh Steelers: Recovery from Lockout, Free Agency and What's Next
This NFL offseason has been reminiscent to watching a rerun of an early 80’s TV Show on a loop. The same plot, the same characters, the same end result with a slightly different story line each time.
Just when fans can’t take another predictable line from the owners or players, the NFL lockout lifted on Monday, and with the details finally unveiled it looks like the Steelers have some serious issues to deal with before the start of the 2011 season.
Lets take a look at what the Steelers are facing under the new CBA, and exactly what could be coming in terms of lockout results, how the locker room will shape up, and of course the inevitable trip to New York for James Harrison.
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement stands to reduce the league salary cap to $120 million in 2011, leaving the Steelers over $10 million in the red after exemptions. While there is excitement in the air as NFL facilities open to their players for the first time in five months, there is certainly work to be done, and it’s going to have to be done in a hurry.
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In an offseason where free agency is so vital to the Steelers they find themselves $10 million over the cap and still have free agents to deal with at positions where they can afford little to no drop off.
The Steelers currently have 10 free agents on the roster, four restricted and six unrestricted.
Restricted Free Agents:
LaMarr Woodley – OLB
Anthony Madison – CB
William Gay – CB
Willie Colon – OT
Unrestricted Free Agents:
Nick Eason – DL
Trai Essex – OL
Keyaron Fox – LB
Chris Hoke – NT
Mewelde Moore – RB
Ike Taylor – CB
While having 10 players that could potentially leave could be alarming, the Steelers have made provision for most of them. While he has been a solid third down back, Mewelde Moore has seen a considerable drop off over the last two seasons. With the addition of Baron Batch in the draft, and Wisconsin running back John Clay as an undrafted free agent to a back field that still has Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer under contract, the writing could be on the wall for Moore.
There are a few notable names on the list that the Steelers will undoubtedly try to keep. Specifically one on the restricted, and one on the unrestricted list that will take priority as the Steelers initiate talks in the coming days...
Coming and Going: Free Agency Continued
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LaMarr Woodley has become a Pro Bowl caliber outside linebacker in the Steelers defense, and there will surely be suitors for his services. Signing Woodley to a cap friendly long-term deal is without a doubt priority one for the Steelers.
On the unrestricted side is cornerback Ike Taylor. While Taylor has been an inconsistent performer over his career, he has consistently been the Steelers’ best cornerback in recent years. With cornerback and offensive line being the Steelers two greatest weaknesses in 2010, they can ill-afford to lose best piece to a puzzle with obvious holes.
While drafting Curtis Allen and Cortez Brown was a step in the right direction, neither is ready to start right away for the Steelers. Taylor must be a priority at least with a contract that covers the next three years.
With the emergence of the young linebackers from the 2010 draft class last season, and high draft picks in 2011 ready to sign, look to see Keyaron Fox be a cap casualty along with the likes of Moore.
The Rookies and Undrafted Free Agents
John Clay 2010 Highlight Reel
Along with the issues of cap and free agency comes the effect the lockout will continue to have on rookies and undrafted free agents moving forward.
As of this morning the Steelers had signed 15 undrafted free agents to go with their rookie draft class.
John Clay – Wisconsin – RB
Weslye Saunders – South Carolina – TE
Trevis Turner – Abilene Christian – OT
Colin Miller – Central Michigan – C
Vaughn Charlton – Temple – TE/HB
Anthony Gray – Southern Mississippi – DT
Terrence McCrae – Ohio – WR
Adam Mims – Furman – WR
Armand Robinson – Miami University – WR
Eric Greenwood – Idaho – WR
Eric Clanton – Citadel – OLB
Mario Harvey – Marshall – MLB
Miguel Chavis – Clemson – DE
Niles Brinkley – Wisconsin – CB
Brent Greenwood – Iowa – S
All things considered the addition of players like John Clay at running back and Weslye Saunders at tight end have made the quick signings very profitable for the Steelers. Getting several players that were draft quality guys if not for injury or other issues at positions where depth and talent are always needed in Pittsburgh have the Steelers front office excited about camp, which opens on July 28th.
The real question is going to be whether or not the rookies, drafted or undrafted, can survive the accelerated learning curve of an already unbelievably fast league.
The Locker Room
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With the Steelers sure to lose a few players to free agency the locker room looks to be intact, but don’t be surprised to see several identifiable names end up with contract ultimatums or being cut altogether in order to get the team under the cap.
Don’t think for a second it’s not going to come without a wince from team officials and fans alike.
With the emergence of Ziggy Hood last season, the Steelers are coming to the harsh reality that it might be time to part ways with Aaron Smith. After finishing the season on the DL three of the last four years, Smith’s bloated salary would free up tremendous financial room for Pittsburgh.
Smith stated in an interview with me last year that he would retire rather than play for anyone else than Pittsburgh. It is likely that he will at least contemplate taking a considerable pay cut to stay with the team this season, but don’t be surprised if he retires with a pink slip instead.
Flozell Adams and Charlie Batch are also likely to be headed elsewhere this season due to finances. Adams is due over $5 million this season, and after taking the lead as the player rep for Pittsburgh in the recent CBA negotiations, Charlie Batch is more likely to find himself on the coaching staff rather than in uniform in 2011.
Locker Room Issues
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The Steelers found a way to come together last season to fight past injuries, suspensions, and the loss of players in order to make a Super Bowl run, but lets not forget the locker room unrest they faced in 2009.
The Steelers were far from a cohesive unit as players quit on the season and each other. This past off-season has bred the possibility of more if not handled correctly early on.
James Harrison, who is never shy to speak his mind, gave an interview in Men’s Journal that called out fellow teammates in ways most guys wait to do until after they have found a new uniform to wear on Sundays.
Harrison’s comments while brushed off by Roethlisberger and Mendenhall publically, aren’t the kind of thing that won’t linger in the air of a locker room unless addressed when the cameras are absent.
With several veteran leaders likely to be gone come the end of training camp, and thickness in the air over hostile words, the Steelers will have to make up their minds early not to let another season be stolen from them by lack of leadership on and off the field.
Roger Goodell has come out and said that he would review all league conduct violations that happened during the lockout, and “appropriate” penalties would follow. While the appropriate part of things is debatable, the fines and suspension sure to come are not.
The Steelers who have traditionally found a way to be out of the spotlight behaviorally, have kept the trend started over the last five off-seasons of off the field issues as notable players found themselves in trouble once again.
Hines Ward, the Steelers’ all-time leading receiver and new “Dancing with the Stars” champion, found himself receiving a DUI several weeks ago. His infraction, a first time incident will certainly be on the docket for the commissioner. While it will not be overlooked, Ward is more likely to find himself with a lighter bank account than a suspension.
James Harrison on the other hand is not going to be viewed with such grace if history is any indication. Harrison was the most heavily fines player in NFL history last season. Fines came in the order of over $100 thousand for on the field hits, and for off the field back talk.
Harrison went on to send a strong message to commissioner Roger Goodell in the same magazine article that he called out his teammates.
“Up until last year, there was no word of me being dirty — till Roger Goodell, who’s a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league. If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t do it. I hate him and will never respect him.”
Goodell will have a fine line to walk in terms of what he can and cannot do to punish Harrison for the article, but make no mistake “the devil” will not be kind when Harrison ends up in another meeting in his New York City office.
The Wrap Up
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The Steelers have some housekeeping to do in the coming weeks, but overall they are in position to make good on their success in 2010.
If the finances are available don’t be surprised to see the Steelers try to add another defensive back to the roster in free agency. Additionally Willie Colon, who was the Steelers’ best statistical offensive lineman in 2009, would be a reasonable option to replace Flozell Adams at the right tackle position if they can come to terms with him prior to another team tendering an offer on his restricted contract.
All of the salary cap, locker room issues, and commissioner levied penalties aside, the lockout is finally over, and football is going to be played this season, and the Steelers have ever reason to believe they will be in contention for another title at the end of it.