Steelers 2013 Free Agent Focus: Kevin Colbert Signals Change

There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches….

That was the seminal line from Dark Knight Rises, which just happened to be filmed in Pittsburgh with Heinz Field providing the setting for its dramatic, signature scene:

The final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was fiction, but listen closely to Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert and its not too hard to conclude that Steelers Nation might be about to witness a rare instance of life imitating art.

The Steelers inconsistent, inopportune and injury plagued 8-8 2012 campaign was unacceptable and Colbert shows that management is ready to do something about it.

While desposition remains important, necessity also plays a role. The Steelers have 19 unrestricted free agents, 6 restricted free agents, are several million over the salary cap and have an aging roster. This is a team that has difficult choices ahead.

Before diving into what Colbert comments tell us about the choices the Steelers might make, let’s look at the numbers:

Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Unrestricted Free Agents

S Will Allen
QB Charlie Batch
WR Plaxico Burress
S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith
LB Larry Foote
RG Ramon Foster
WR David Gilreath
NT Casey Hampton
CB Justin King
QB Byron Leftwich
OG Doug Legursky
CB Keenan Lewis
LB Brandon Johnson
FB David Johnson
RB Rashard Mendenhall
FS Ryan Mundy
TE Leonard Pope
LT Max Starks
LS Greg Warren

For those of your keeping track at home 16 of these unrestricted free agents started at least one game for the Steelers in 2012, 17 if you count long snapper Greg Warren, according to Behind the Steel Curtain.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Restricted Free Agents

RB Jonathan Dwyer
NT Steve McLendon
RB Issac Redman
WR Emmanuel Sanders
LB Stevenson Sylvester
CB Josh Victorian

Not Business as Usual for the Steelers

Since the opening of Heinz Field, standard operating Steelers personnel procedure has been keep the core of the roster intact.

Outsider Norv Turner remarked at how little the Steelers roster had changed between the 2008 Steelers victory over San Diego in 2008 and the Chargers upset in 2012.

The victories in Super Bowl XL, Super Bowl XLIII and appearances in Super Bowl XLV fully vindicate the Steelers stay the course philosophy. Kevin Colbert, in an interview last month with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is signaling that this is about to change “When you’re 12-4 and a playoff team, sometimes you get mesmerized by your success and you get a little reluctant to change.”

Easy words to say, but what do they really mean? Colbert left little room for doubt, going so far as to explain “If we don’t change a roster that produced 8-8, we’d be silly to expect a better result because it’s the same group of guys.”

  • Translation:  Expect roster changes to cut deeper this time

The Steelers renewal process actually began after 2009, when the team parted ways with veterans like like Willie Parker and Desha Townsend. The Steelers tried to do the same thing with Max Starks but injuries forced them to bring him back both in 2011 and 2012.

The movement of course picked up steam in 2011, as the Steelers parted ways with Chris Kemoeatu, Aaron SmithBryant McFadden, James Farrior, and of courseHines Ward, each man being the owner of two Super Bowl rings.

To keep their core veterans together, the Steelers have worked the salary cap, by renegotiating contracts and prorating signing bonuses.

Already over the cap, the Steelers will likely do follow suit in 2013 with Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons serving as the likely renegotatees.

However, there’s a limit to how long this can be done, as Colbert himself acknowledge warning “You have to be careful. Sooner or later, you have to pay the debt. You never want to get to a point where you have to gut your team and start over.”

Simple restructures will only get the Steelers so much salary cap and if they’re not willing to do heavy-duty restructuring, the only other way to clear space is to release players. Colbert signaled that the Steelers were indeed ready to do just that, clarifying that “In my mind, when you’re 8-8, I don’t think you had too many franchise players.”

  • Translation:  There are no sacred cows

The turf at Heinz Field might not explode Thomas Tull style but the roster remains a different question entirely.

Steelers 2013 Free Agent Focus

The NFL free agency deadline begins in mid-march, and Steel Curtain Rising will be profiling the Steelers free agent situation in the time between now and then, as well as looking at the potential cost-benefit of parting ways with players like James Harrison and Willie Colon – consider perhaps the two most likely targets in a roster purge.

Hold on tight, there’s a storm coming.

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