All Quiet on the Steelers Free Agent Front

As free agency entered its second week, the Steelers have been quiet, although perhaps things have gone a little better than expected.

Unexpected was the word last week, as the Steelers rolled the dice by cutting seven year starter Kendall Simmons, which left them with one experienced guard under contact.

The gamble paid off, as Chris Kemoeatu resigned with the Steelers after rejecting a slightly higher offer from the New York Jets.

Nate Washington started the week by becoming the first Steeler defect via free agency, signing a lucrative deal with Tennessee. A lot of people expected Bryant McFadden to quickly follow suit, and he did work out with Arizona. McFadden hasn’t gotten an offer from the Cardinals, and Ed Bouchette reports that some in the NFL find McFadden’s salary demands too high.

This makes sense, as McFadden is quite talented, yet after four years in the NFL he has yet to emerge as a regular NFL starter, although that is not necessarily a reflection on his ability.

The Steelers have opened talks with McFadden’s agent, and might have an outside shot at resigning him, although the odds still strongly favor his leaving for a new team.

Blips from Way, Way, Way Down on the Radar Screen

Diehards note the fact that the Steelers have resigned Martin Nance who was on their 2008 practice squad, although this report is still, cross your fingers, unofficial. Bouchette also reported that they are close to resigning linebacker/special teams standout Keyaron Fox whose return would be welcome.

There was also more news on the effort to resign James Harrison, but that will be the subject of a future post. Stay tuned.

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Nate Washington Signs with Tennessee. Is Bryant McFadden Next?

The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered their first free agent defection yesterday, as former number three wide receiver Nate Washington signed a six year 27 million dollar contract with former AFC Central Division rival Tennessee.

Strong suspicion exists that Nate Washington will be followed by Bryant McFadden today, as the team’s starting cornerback visited with the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, and is believed to be a candidate for a starting spot there.

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What’s the State of Negotiations Between the Steelers and James Harrison

Click through the pages (or leaf through them if you’re lucky enough) of Pittsburgh’s two newspapers, and you’ll find plenty of coverage of the Steelers attempts to resign James Harrison.

Most of the stories have taken, “sure, it’s a business negotiation, but all of us want to get the deal done and so its all hunky dory” tone. On Wednesday of last week, the Post-Gazette reported that things had hit a snag of sorts, namely that the complexities of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement were making the structuring of the contract difficult.

But all else was well, as indicated by the quote from James Harrison’s agent Bill Parise that Bouchette used to close his article:

“It’s very hard,” Parise said. “We’re trying to do stuff and working hard at it. We’re going to get it done but have to be really smart guys.”

Contrast that with what Parise told ESPN.

James Walker ran as story on ESPN.com which painted a different picture, beginning with the title of his article “Issue Over Money, Not Length.”

Parise explicitly told ESPN that the two sides were “not close.” One of the quotes they attribute to them is even more attention catching:

“We’re talking and meeting pretty regularly, almost daily, but we’re having a difficult time getting to where we need to be,” Parise said. “I would say talks are progressing but not necessarily yielding the results that we would
expect.”

Hard to really know what to make of this. It’s not uncommon for media figures to adopt one tone when speaking with the local media and another with the national press, Bill Cowher seemed to do it all the time.

But here Parise is almost saying two completely different things. While this is unlikely to have any real impact on the outcome of negotiations, one would think that he would realize that we are in the age of the internet, and that a fair portion it’s pretty easy to spot such glaring inconsistencies.

Perhaps there’s another explanation for this. If there is, it would be interesting to know.

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Just How Valuable Were the Steelers 2009 Free Agents?

NFL players are a scarce commodity. Economics 101 tells us that scarcity + high demand leads to high prices.

When free agency began at 12:01 am on Friday the 27th, the Steelers saw no fewer than a eleven unrestricted hit the open market. Most are not expected to return, so that begs the question, just how valuable are these players?

  • The answer depends upon who responds.

One of the most interesting things in the run up to free agency was the difference in the values that the Pittsburgh press pegged on the Steelers free agents vs. the national media.

In discussing Bryant McFadden, Chris Kemoeatu, and Nate Washington, the Post-Gazette and the Tribune Review regularly attributed the adjectives “top free agent corner/guard/wide receiver,” or phrases like “so-and-so is expected to be the first to go.”

  • These men are good players who will rake in a lot of money and the Steelers will miss McFadden and Washington.

But the rest of the national media does not hold these Steelers in as high regard as their colleagues in the Pittsburgh press do.

Peter Schrager of Fox Sports wrote a lengthy column rating free agents at every position. He broke players down into three major categories: Big Money Guy, The Bargain Bin, the Wild Card, and one minor one, Other intriguing names.

The Steelers only had one player land in one of Schrager’s top three categories. He put Byron Leftwich into the Bargain Bin, which is on the mark. The only other Steelers to make Schrager’s list were Marvel Smith and Nate Washington, who both were “Other intriguing names” at their respective positions.

Washington is easy to understand, but Smith an intriguing name at his age and with his injury history?

  • Byrant McFadden’s name was no where to be found, which must be considered some what of a surprise.

Regardless, its interesting to note that 72 hours into free agency, neither McFadden nor Washington has a new team. That will almost certainly change before the end of the week, but the disparity of the Pittsburgh media’s evaluation of Steelers free agents and that of the national media is interesting.

It brings back memories of 1999, when Richard Huntely signed a contract extension with the Steelers. The exact numbers of his deal have faded from memory, but they were nothing extraordinary. The Pittsburgh media was in awe of the contract, in spite of the fact that it only amounted to backup money – generous back up money, but back up money nonetheless.

Pittsburgh Sports Media Gets Blindsided by Simmons’ Departure

Speaking of surprises, Steelers Nation was not expecting Steelers to cut Kendall Simmons. And that’s because this move was totally unanticipated by the Pittsburgh press corps.

In particular, Ed Bouchette was asked time and time again during the season in his weekly chat sessions about the Steelers plans for Chris Kemoeatu. Bouchette’s reply was that the Steelers would most likely let him go and plan to start Darnell Stapleton and Kendall Simmons at guard in ’09.

To be fair, Bouchette reported several times over the last week that the Steelers were in serious talks with Kemoeatu, but never he suggest that Simmons would get the axe.

Taking Our Own Medicine, Again

A site that revels in pointing out the faults and inconsistencies of the professional journalists in Pittsburgh must own up to its own short comings.

Steel Curtain Rising ran a post the morning after the Steelers cut Simmons. In that post we stated that he’d been drafted in 2003. In fact, he was drafted in 2002. We’ve corrected the mistake, but it is nonetheless important to fess up.

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Steelers Resign Chris Kemoeatu to 5 Year $20 Million Contract

If the 2008 season proved that Mike Tomlin is not a man who coaches scared, then the 2009 might end up being the one where Tomlin and his cohort Kevin Colbert revealed that they have no fear when comes to personnel decisions.

The Steelers made headlines even before free agency began with a move that shocked much of Steelers Nation. They waived former first round pick Kendall Simmons, a move which left them with only one experienced NFL guard under contract.

  • Steel Curtain Rising speculated this morning that the Steelers were making this move because they felt they could resign Chris Kemoeatu.

This turned out to be true, as Chris Kemoeatu signed a five year 20 million dollar contract that included a 3.855 million dollar signing bonus.

  • But before this came to pass, Kemoeatu tested the free agent waters, entertaining an offer from the New York Jets.

The decision to cut Simmons without having Kemoeatu under contract amounted to a major risk on the part of Pittsburgh. Had Kemoeatu signed with another team, the Steelers would have been left with two undrafted guards.

Colbert and Tomlin knew this, yet made their move anyway. As they we would say in Spanish, “Tienen huevos de acero.” [Translated literally, that means “they have eggs of steel” I’ll leave it to you to figure out what “eggs” metaphor stands for….]

Did Kemoeatu Sign for Less?

The Post-Gazette reported that the offer from the Jets was for “about the same amount” as the Steelers offered. Yet his agent’s words are more nebulous.

The Jets were extremely aggressive and professional. At the end of the day, it was an opportunity to win another Super Bowl and stay with his teammates, along with a good, aggressive, solid offer from the Steelers. That was enough to keep him there.

The statement, “good, aggressive, solid offer from the Steelers. That was enough to keep him here…” does not lend one to think that the Steelers outbid the Jets.

It’s obvious that there was not a big difference, but perhaps Kemoeatu signed at a slight discount.

Did the Steelers Make the Right Move by Cutting Kendall Simmons?

Now that the initial shock (and subsequent panic) has worn off, the question remains, “were the Steelers right to waive Simmons?” After all, he was a first round draft pick and rookie of the year in 2002, and when Alan Fanaca refused to sign in 2007, they quickly moved to lock up Simmons.

  • Two years later, they are showing him the door.

The question is difficult to answer.

Simmons came on strong as a rookie, saw his sophomore season marred by diabeties, and then was injured in 2004. He was good enough to start on the Steelers 2005 Super Bowl team, but the pass protection the following year was severely degraded. Anyone who hopped that replacing Max Starks with Willie Colon a guard would solve the problem was mistaken.

To say that this was all Simmons’ fault would be both wrong and unfair.

But Simmons has not distinguished himself as anything more than average over the last few years. (Indeed, sites like Steelers Today are far more critical of Simmons.)

  • Clearly, Kendall Simmons was not indispensable.

The move also shows that the Steelers think the Chris Kemoeatu and Darnell Stapelton can and will improve.

Losing Simmons does complicate their already muddled salary cap picture, but it mainly adds to their waste money. Here the Steelers are also clearly thinking long term, assuming that the NFL and the NFLPA will extend their collective bargaining agreement either in 2010 or at some point soon after.

Steel Curtain Rising was not an overly enthusiastic backer of Kemoeatu, but the Steelers certainly did not break the bank for him, and his signing bonus is meager by today’s standards. Kemoeatu’s cap value will be about the same as Simmon’s would have been, and for the same value they get a younger player who has the potential to improve, whereas Simmons’ injuries were mounting and he wasn’t going to get any better.

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Steelers Release Kendall Simmons, Starting Guard and Former 1st Round Draft Pick

In a stunning move, the Steelers released former starting left guard Kendall Simmons on the eve of free agency. Simmons had been their first round draft pick in 2002 and became an immedate starter as a rookie. He missed 2004 to injury, and was lost for the season in week five against Jacksonville this year.

The release of Simmons means that Darnell Stapleon is the only full-time guard that they have under contract. Perhaps this move signals that the Steelers believe they can resign free agent guard Chris Kemoeatu, perhaps it means something else.

Who knows?

But you can count on Steel Curtain Rising to vigorously follow up on the Steelers release of Kendall Simmons.

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Steelers 2009 Free Agent Focus: Nate Washington and Bryant McFadden

Readers can be assured that it was mere happenstance that Nate Washington and Bryant McFadden Steel Curtain Risings Steelers 2009 Free Agent focus only arrived at them a few hours before they’re set to become unrestricted free agents.

Nate Washington and Bryant McFadden were both rookies on the Steelers 2005 Super Bowl XL Championship squad. The former arrived as another one of Kevin Colbert’s undrafted rookie free agent gems, the later came as a second round pick out of Florida State.

Neither man saw much action in the 2005 regular season, but both men came up big in the playoffs, which we’ll discuss in the meantime.

  • Washington started two games in 2006, followed by four in 2007, and one in 2008.

McFadden started one game in 2005, nine games in 2006 (in for injured Deshea Towshend and then for benched Ike Taylor) and then did not start any games in 2007. He started several games in 2008, but also missed six games due to injury.

Assessment of Nate Washington and Bryant McFadden

Both men played huge roles in the Steelers 2005 run to the Super Bowl XL. McFadden made a touchdown saving pass defense in the end zone with 31 seconds on the clock against the Colts in the divisional playoffs.

Washington caught his first NFL pass in the AFC Championship game against Denver, and that 13 yard reception converted a crucial third down play. Washington also played a little defense that day, saving an almost sure Ben Roethlisberger interception in the end zone.

Since then the two men’s careers have developed on incongruous if yet still similar paths. Washington has gotten steadily better year by year. During the 2007 season he established himself as a legitimate 3rd wide receiver, and managed to shed his habit of dropping balls. In 2008 Washington took another leap forward. As the season wore on, Washington became just as likely as Hines Ward or Santonio Holmes to find himself on the receiving end of a Roethlisberger pass during critical moments. And Washington also proved that he can be a very dangerous downfield threat.

McFadden’s case is a little more nebulous. The Steelers almost certainly drafted him with the idea that he would replace Deshea Townsend. From his sophomore season on, one of the key battles in training game has been McFadden vs. Townsend. The 2008 off season was peppered with whispers that Townsend was going to move to safety.

While McFadden has gotten better, Townsend has held him off.

What the Steelers Should do with Nate Washington and Bryant McFadden?

In a perfect world, both men would be back with the Steelers in 2009. And if that utopia were to come to pass, the Steelers chances of climbing the stairway to seven in 2009 would be strengthened.

Alas, the world is not perfect. (Heck, the translation of Utopia is “no place.”)

  • The salary cap dictates some bitter realities, and one of them is that it will take a miracle for both men to be back in Pittsburgh in 2009.

When Santonio Holmes has his run ins with the law, Steel Curtain Rising suggested that the so-so season he’d been having up this point, combined with his marijuana arrest, just might lead the Steelers to deal Holmes and resign Washington.

While Washington has done nothing to weaken his case since then, Santoino Holmes was the MVP of the post-season, relegating any scenario of the Steelers favoring Washington over Holmes to a mere pipe dream (excuse the pun.)

The Steelers know they have little chance of signing either man, or else they would have made an honest effort. All reports are that they have not.

They’re just being realistic on that front.

Losing both of these men is going to hurt, no doubt, but neither is irreplaceable. William Gay showed promise in 2008, and Limus Sweed, if he can only manage to learn to hold on to the ball, showed that he can spread the field. (As for Desha Townsend, he shows no sings of slowing, ask Dallas, but how much longer can he perform at this level? Hopefully, a little longer.)

Most Likely Scenario for Nate Washington

The relative free agent value of both men seems elude consensus (more on that in the next edition of Watch Tower.) Clearly both men are going to attract interest from other NFL teams very early on, and its likely that Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII will bookend both men’s time in Pittsburgh.

Of the two, Washington is most likely to go first, and for the most money. Going into the season, Steel Curtain Rising had Washington pegged as a Bobby Shaw type player – a very strong number three receiver, but not someone who was a solid number one or number two receiver.

That was then. Nate Washington showed in 2008 that he deserves a chance to start, and he will get that chance. It just won’t be with the Steelers.

Most Likely Scenario for Bryant McFadden

McFadden will also likely go fast, but not as fast. And theirs is an outside chance he could wind up back in Pittsburgh, however remote that possibility is.

There’s a lot of speculation as to the effect that the current economic crisis will have on the NFL free agent market. (Thus far, no brake on spending is visible.) But some have speculated (both on ESPN.com and in the Washington Post) that while the economy will do nothing to slow the initial free agent signing frenzy, perhaps the frenetic period will be shorter, followed by a sharp drop off in activity.

If that scenario proves to be true, it’s possible that McFadden will still be available after initial breakneck round of free agent transactions. If that is the case then he could find himself as a free agent in a market where teams are either capped out or unwilling to spend. Should that come to pass, he could decide to return to the Steelers.

It is unlikely that this course of events will come to, but it is plausible enough to mention.

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Steelers 2009 Free Agent Focus: Charlie Batch

Charlie Batch entered the NFL as the Detroit Lion’s second round draft pick out of Eastern Michigan in 1998. Over four seasons he started 48 games for the Lions, until a variety of factors led Detroit to cut him in June of 2002. The Steelers did not hesitate to bring this Homestead native back to Pittsburgh.

Batch served as the third string quarterback throughout the 2002 season but did not play and only saw spot duty in 2003. After spending all of 2004 on injured reserve he was actually cut the day before the Steelers season opener in 2005, but only to rejoin the team the following Monday.

The Steelers gamble paid off. Batch entered the season as the Steelers third string quarterback, but became Ben’s primary back up on the heels of ineffective play by Tommy Maddox. Rusty in his first start against Green Bay, Batch nonetheless led the team to victory in a game where the Steelers had neither Jerome Bettis nor Willie Parker. His play improved against Cleveland, only to see Batch break a finger before the second half.

Batch started one game and threw passes in five others in 2006 and played well. He also started the final game of 2007. He broke his collar bone in the 2008 preseason, and spent the entire year on injured reserve.

Assessment of Charlie Batch

Charlie Batch is a solid number two quarterback, a consummate team player, and a positive force on the locker room. He is also a leader off the field, providing unconditional support for Ben Roethlisberger, and lending both his name and his energy to efforts to help Pittsburgh’s under privileged youth. When Batch first came to the Steelers, both sides figured it would be a short term gig, as they both saw Batch as a starting caliber quarterback.

Yet Charlie Batch has been an excellent fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Batch appears very happy with his role.

What the Steelers Should to with Charlie Batch

This one should be simple, but it does have the potential to get tricky. Bryon Leftwich is most likely going to seek and should receive and shot at starting some where. If that happens, then the Steelers have every reason to bring Batch back.

Most Likely Scenario for the Steelers and Charlie Batch

Football realpolitik demands that the Steelers at least try to bring Leftwich back as Ben’s back up. Leftwich is planning to shop his services around, but openly considering offers to stay with the Steelers. The Steelers run a little bit of a risk here, because if talks with Leftwich go beyond the “thanks but no thanks” stage, Batch could decide to look elsewhere, and Leftwich could ultimately sign with someone else.

Batch has a lot of support inside the Steelers organization, so it’s an unlikely hypothetical scenario, but one that bears mentioning.

In all likelihood, Leftwich will find another opportunity, and Batch will be back as Ben’s back up in 2009.

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Watch Tower: Steel Curtain Rising Ahead of The Curve

Someone needs to tell Ed Bouchette to stop stealing Steel Curtain Rising’s ideas! (That’s just a joke for you lawyers out there.)

Seriously, today’s Post Gazette reported that Byron Leftwich might seriously consider staying with the Steelers as a back up, because he’s enjoyed his time here, he likes playing for Mike Tomlin, and he apperciates the Steelers as an organiztion.

That is exactly the secnario that Steel Curtain Rising floated in yesterday’s edition of Steelers 2009 Free Agent Focus, which dealt with Byron Leftwich’s impending free agency.

OK, it doesn’t take a genius to piece together the logic that would bring Byron Leftwich back to Pittsburgh as a back up, but the fact that Steel Curtain Rising, from 6,000 miles away and with zero access to sources, was ahead of the Post Gazette at least buys us some bragging rights….

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Steelers 2009 Free Agent Focus: Byron Leftwich

Byron Leftwich got the script backward. Players are supposed to leave the Steelers and then return in a rival’s uniform. Leftwich started his career in 2003 as the 7th overall pick of the once-rival Jacksonville Jaguars, leading his team to victories over the Steelers in both 2005 and 2006.

Injuries and the emergence of David Garrard led to Leftwich’s exodus from Jacksonville, from there he landed in Atlanta where he played well, but was still oft-injured, and was released again.

As preseason began, Leftwich appeared destined to watch the 2008 season from his couch. Then Charlie Batch broke his collarbone and within 48 hours Leftwich was on a plane to Pittsburgh.

Assessing Byron Leftwich

When asked why the Steelers were so quick to sign Leftwich after Charlie Batch went down, Mike Tomlin explained he wanted a backup quarterback who capable of taking Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl should something happen to Ben.

In many ways, Leftwich fits the Charlie Batch mold. Drafted as a starter, he fell out of favor with his coaches and found himself on the NFL unemployment line. Other teams, who had less depth at quarterback than Pittsburgh, showed no interest. But what the rest spurned, the Steelers embraced.

Leftwich saw limited action as a Steeler, but Leftwich’s play against the Redskins and Browns in relief of Ben Roethlisberger vindicates Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s rush to bring him into camp. Leftwich is a starting caliber quarterback, but he’s enjoyed playing in Pittsburgh, and he’s been a welcome addition to the Steelers.

What the Steelers Should do With Byron Leftwich

Byron Leftwich was happy here in 2008 as a back up, but sees himself as a starting quarterback looking toward 2009…. The same was true for Charlie Batch in 2002 and 2003.

If Leftwich wants to start somewhere, obviously he should follow his dream. But the Steelers must at least take a shot at keeping him as a back up.

The Most Likely Scenario for Byron Leftwich and the Steelers

Leftwich is young enough and played well enough in 2008 that at least some NFL personnel directors have to see that he’s worthy of another shot. It’s important to remember that although Batch is happy in Pittsburgh, he’s never generated a lot of interest when he’s been a free agent.

One would figure that Leftwich would generate interest from other teams. If he gets an offer he’ll go, if not the Steelers will have an interesting decision to make….

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