The market is about to open on NFL free agents, and unless the NFL owners and NFLPA reach an agreement before midnight March 4th, the NFL will see its first uncapped year since 1993.
In many cities, free agency is a time of great excitement, momentous headlines spurred by even more momentous signing bonuses.
Free Agency has never been as such in Steelers Nation. During the 1990’s, it was a time that Steelers fans dreaded, as fans watched the brain trust of Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher develop players like Chad Brown, Willie Williams, Neil O’Donnell and Yancy Thigpen only to see them depart for greener pastures.
The Age of Overpaying Ex-Steelers
Although it did not get much ink at the time, the truth was that almost without exception, the players that the Steelers lost got overpaid, often grossly over paid, by their new teams.
The best example, perhaps, is John Jackson, a very good, although not great left tackle who the San Diego Chargers made the highest paid offensive lineman in NFL history in 1998. This occurred despite the fact that Johnson never even made a Pro Bowl.
Losing Jackson wrought havoc with the Steelers offensive line for two years, just look at Jerome Bettis rushing totals from 1998 and 1999, but Steelers management was nonetheless wise not to throw money at Jackson, who would only play 2 years for the Chargers, before resurfacing in a part-time role in his native Cincinnati.
Free Agency Savvy, Before Free Agency Savvy was Cool
The Steelers of course, navigated the salary cap and free agency with an under appreciated savvy in the 1990’s. They targeted the players they knew were essential to winning, and focused on resigning them.
That strategy only began to falter when their drafting faltered. John Jackson provides the perfect example. In 1996 they drafted Jermaine Stephens, with the thought that he’d be Jackson’s eventual replacement.
Stephens, of course, ranks right up there with Huey Richardson as one of the Steelers all time first round draft pick busts.
That period of Steelers history provides many examples. Losing players like Yancy Thigpen and Ernie Mills would not have been as devastating had players like Will Blackwell and Jaheen Arnold panned out.
They didn’t, and the Steelers suffered accordingly.
The Steelers and Free Agency, 2010
We already know, from both Kevin Colbert and Art II that the Steelers are going to operate as if their were a cap. No surpise there.
And we know their preference is to resign their own players, having already done so with Casey Hampton and placing the franchise tag on Jeff Reed.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the other free agents the Steelers have, commenting on what the Steelers should do and speculating on what might actually happen.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 2010 Unrestricted Free Agents
What the Steelers Should Do: Batch has become injury prone. He was in for 3-4 plays against Kansas City, and he still managed to break his wrist. Should some other veteran back up, say, a Bryon Leftwich, become available, the Steelers should consider signing him.
What Will Likely Happen: Word is the Steelers want Charlie Batch. Batch is a class act, a locker room leader, and one of Ben’s confideants. The Steelers will most likely bring back Batch, to serve as a mentor type role for Dennis Dixon and emergency quarterback.
What the Steelers Should Do: Brought in at mid-season to bolster the special teams, Boiman is not much of a known quantity. Clearly he is not going to get much attention one way or another, but if the tape shows he helped on special teams, by all means bring him back!
What Will Likely Happen: Hard to say. The Steelers generally make moves under the radar in free agency, and it is likely that they can find a younger, more able special teamer who is an UFA.
What the Steelers Should Do: My Argentine wife, who has seen few football games end-to-end, did not need to see more than 5 minutes of Carter to say, “He’s no Polamalu.” So true. If the Steelers were deep in the secondary, perhaps Carter would have place. But he no longer has any business as the number one back up at both safety slots.
What Will Likely Happen: Not much has been said about him, but after the awful year he put in relief of Troy Polamalu, you’d have to figure the Steelers would be open to replacing him.
What the Steelers Should Do: Another member of the secondary of flatered badly in Troy Polamalu’s absence. But Clark is a harder nut to crack. The Steelers clearly missed him in 2007, and Clark made an impact throughout 2008, so much that many commentators projected him to be the number one free agent in 2010. But he played poorly in 2009. The Steelers nonetheless want to sign him before he it’s the market. Steel Curtain Rising questions whether this is a wise move or not.
What Will Likely Happen: This one is tough to predict. The Steelers say they want to sign him, and Clark’s agent keeps boasting of a “home town discount.” One wonders if this isn’t a ploy because he knows Clark’s value has dropped after the 2009 season.
On the flip side, Clark is reputed to have maintained a strong relationship with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. Snyder has always spent as if there were no cap, so one can imagine him without a salary cap. If Ryan Clark hits free agency, Daniel Snyder could a ridiculous sum at him – and perhaps do the Steelers a favor in the process.
What the Steelers Should Do: One of the under reported stories of the 2009 season was that the Steelers’ run defense held up quite well, at least for a month or so, after Aaron Smith’s absence. Nick Eason played a role in making that happen. Eason is a serviceable back up whom the Steelers should bring back.
What Will Likely Happen: If the Steelers believe in Sunny Harris, it is unlikely that they’ll bring both Eason and Krischke back. One would figure they’d opt for the younger pair of legs.
What the Steelers Should Do: Mike Tomlin likes Joey Galloway, and wanted him on his team. Galloway’s best days are behind him, and could only be a spot contributor under the best if circumstances. The Steelers should focus more on developing their youth at wide receiver.
What Will Likely Happen: It is doubtful that Galloway will be on the field when the Steelers open camp in Latrobe.
What the Steelers Should Do: Kirschke, like Eason, deserves credit for helping the Steelers avert a total drop off in run defense, like the one they suffered in 2007 after they lost Smith. Still, Kirschke is well into his mid-30’s. The Steelers need to look toward developing their youth on the defensive line, and Kirschkey would seem the odd man out.
What Will Likely Happen: Again, it really depends on what the Steelers coaches see in Sunny Harris. The presence of both Kirschke and Eason in Latrobe would not be a ringing endorsement of the coach’s faith in Harris.
What the Steelers Should Do: What to do with Willie Parker? Those who decried the Steelers refusal to offer him a new contract in train camp quickly repented once the season was underway.
Yet, Willie Parker came back with a vengeance at the end of the season, and Parker’s running was critical to the Steelers ability to run out the clock. Parker, apparently, still thinks of himself as a starter, but it is doubtful that he is still a 16 game, 20 plus carry player.
The Steelers should try to bring him back, but only after he really gets a chance to test his market value.
What Will Likely Happen: The Steelers are going to let Parker test his market value, whether he comes back or not is a mystery. Chances are, Parker will be wearing colors other than Black and Gold next fall.
What the Steelers Should Do: Townsend is a hard one to figure. The logical answer is that 2009 was the year that Townsend could no longer fool father time. There may be something to that, but the entire Steelers secondary was spooked in 2009, not a single man played to his potential.
Even if Townsend may have slowed a step, he is still a veteran presence, and most likely still has something to contribute. He may no longer have the speed to cut it as a nickel back, but it says here he has the still to merit a shot a safety.
What Will Likely Happen: At his age, and coming off of the year he’s had, it is unlikely that Townsend will get a lot of attention in free agency, although with the uncapped year, such pronouncements are less certain. But the odds still favor Townsend coming back.