Steelers Prepare for Browns; Steelers Nation Prepares to Bid Farewell to Super Bowl Veterans

There’s something unique about high school sports – You know when someone’s playing time is done. My high school wrestling team had a tradition. During the final home match of the season, seniors would be called out to the mat, and recognized for wrestling one final time.

  • Sadly, the dynamic of personnel changes in the NFL rarely lends itself to such send offs.

This is unfortunate because as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to close their 2013 regular season vs. the Cleveland Browns, Steelers Nation is preparing to say farewell to several Steelers starters.

Fully 1/3 of the Steelers roster are unrestricted free agents. That figure includes some budding younger stars, in addition to several Super Bowl veterans.

New Meaning to “Young Money”

Ziggy Hood, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jason Worilds are just a few younger Steelers who will finish their time with the team, and look for their payday. NFL players do not reach free agency until after their fourth season. The average NFL career lasts fewer than four seasons. While that represents a harsh reality for younger players, it also means that second NFL contracts can leave a player set for life, if they manage their money properly.

The Steelers will look to retain some of those players, most notably Worilds, but salary cap realities dictate that they can’t retain everyone.

  • The three players mentioned have had interesting trajectories.

Ziggy Hood is the only first round draft pick and, although he’s flashed, his body of work is largely a disappointment, although Hood is far from an outright bust. Ironically, that fact might make it easy for the Steelers to retain him.

Emmanuel Sanders contributed early as a rookie, and Bruce Arians singled out his injury in Super Bowl XLV as a major complication in that losing effort. Yet Sanders has had injury issues, and has never quite reached a consistent level of play. With Markus Wheaton waiting in the wings, the Steelers are likely to let Sander walk.

Jason Worlids spent his first three NFL seasons fighting off injuries and comparisons to Dallas linebacker Sean Lee. Some of that is unfair, as he entered the league playing behind what, at the time, was the NFL’s best 1-2 outside linebacking duo in the form of LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Yet Worilds exploded this year to lead the team with 8 sacks. The Steelers would clearly like to keep him, but Woodley’s contract makes that complicated.

So Long to Super Bowl Veterans

Saying goodbye is always difficult, but some goodbyes are more difficult than others. And the game against the Browns figures to be the last for at least two – if not more, Super Bowl veterans.

During 2012 and 2011 Ryan Clark was probably the most underrated defensive back in the league. Clark was in on every play, laying in the wood on big hits, causing turnovers, and leading the defense. Yet Clark has slowed a step in 2013, and the Steelers invested their 2014 third round pick in trading up to get Shamarko Thomas.

  • Sunday’s game vs. the Browns will almost certainly be Clark’s last at Heinz Field.

Someday someone will probably make a movie about Brett Keisel. From 7th round pick to Super Bowl starter. Keisel joined the Steelers as part of Kevin Colbert’s best ever 2002 draft. He did his time on special teams, worked in spot duty, and assumed the starting role after Super Bowl XL. Keisel was once looked at as simply someone who could “hold his own” along side stars Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton. Yet by 2010 Keisel was the stud on the defensive line, and a leader off the field as well.

  • Like Clark, Steelers Nation will almost certainly say goodbye to Keisel on Sunday.

But the personnel upheavel may not be limited to free agents. And that’s where it really hurts….

Just like James Harrison last year, Troy Polamalu has one year remaining on his contract. Just like James Harrison he has injury history. Just like Harrison, Polamalu possess the unique On the Field Presence that allows him to make game changing plays. And just like Harrison, Polamalu represents a huge salary cap hit.

  • While the odds are probably greater than 50/50 that he’ll return, there’s still a very real possibility that Sunday’s game will be Polamalu’s final one in Pittsburgh.

And no, that does not exhaust the list. The emergence of Vince Williams and Terence Garvin coupled with the possibility of a Sean Spence return will likely make Larry Foote expendable. And Ike Taylor too could find himself a cap casualty, although Taylor will most likely be back.

Roster upheaval is always painful.  But Ben Roethlisberger will be 33 next year, the same age Joe Montana was when he won his last Super Bowl, making roster renewal a necessity.

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