Steelers 2012 Free Agent Focus

The Pittsburgh Steelers are poised to enter one of the trickest free agent signing periods since the current system began in 1993.

All of that, and they still remain only 8 to 14 million dollars under the salary cap, depending on whose numbers you believe.

Exclusive Rights Free Agents (3)

RB Isaac Redman
DT Steve McLendon
P Jeremy Kapinos

Restricted Free Agents (7)

WR Mike Wallace
TE David Johnson
OT Jamon Meredith
OL Ramon Foster
OL Doug Legursky
CB Keenan Lewis
S Ryan Mundy

Unrestricted Free Agents (10)

QB Charlie Batch
QB Dennis Dixon
QB Byron Leftwich
RB Mewelde Moore
WR Jerricho Cotchery
OT Max Starks
OL Trai Essex
CB William Gay
CB Anthony Madison
P Daniel Sepulveda

Tough Decisions Await the Steelers

A world of scarcity is a world of choices, or so Dr. Peter Meenan, my Economics 102 teacher taught us.

  • For the Steelers, salary cap space is scare and they need to make some tough choices.

As Ed Bouchette pointed out in the Post-Gazette last week the Steelers will likely tender Mike Wallace high enough so that they can get a first round pick if they lose him. And, as Bouchette pointed out in PG Plus today, they’ve got little to no choice but to give Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster second round tenders.

Right there that eats up 6.5 million dollars of the Steelers salary cap space. If they’ve currently got 12 or 14 million of cap space, they have some breathing room, but not a lot.

If they’re only 8 or 10 million under the cap, they have very little room to maneuver.

Assuming that the Steelers tender Keenan Lewis, Ryan Mundy, and David Johnson, which would allow them right of first refusal or a third, 6th, or 7th round draft pick in return for losing them, the Steelers would commit another 3.78 million dollars in salary cap space.

Total all of that up, and the Steelers will have committed 12.08 million dollars to without even thinking of resigning Jerricho Cotchery, William Gay, Byron Leftwich and/or Charlie Batch; or sign their draft picks.

Kevin Colbert and Omar Kahn could still make a few moves. Will Allen could be cut. The Steelers could renegotiate more contracts, although questions abound as to whether deferred to much salary to future years.

Disclaimer….

Steel Curtain Rising has no access to any inside information nor intimate knowledge of the mechanics of the NFL salary cap. What you see above has been gleamed from public sources and the calculations are over the back of an envelop variety.

  • So perhaps the Steelers will find a way to do more with less.

Nonethless, it is safe to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 roster will look quite different from the 2011 edition. In other words, Hines Ward, James Farrior, Chris Kemoeatu, Aaron Smith and Bryant McFadden are far from the only familiar faces that will be missing.

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Steelers Shed Salary, Super Bowl Rings, and Locker Room Leadership….

Institutional memory is a curious concept. Clearly one can neither precisely define or measure it, but institutional memory nonetheless remains a tangible quality.

One of the lessons that the Steelers organization took from the ‘70’s is that they held on to too many Super Steelers veterans too far past their prime.

After parting ways with Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Chris Kemoeatu, and James Farrior no one can hurl that accusation at Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin.

In 1976 the Steelers left their 1975 first round pick Dave Brown unprotected in an expansion draft…

  • …Brown went Seattle where he made a Pro Bowl, two UPI All Pro Teams and one AP All Pro teams

In 1979 the Steelers kept a rapidly fading Dwight White over rookie training camp sensation Dwaine Board

  • White was done within two years, whereas Bill Walsh snapped up Board, who posted three double digit sack seasons with the 49ers in the ‘80s.

And of course in the spring of 1983 the Steelers figured the could squeeze a couple of three more seasons out of Terry Bradshaw, opting to pass on a kid named Marino…

  • …Steelers Nation knows how passing on Dan Marino turned out.

Who knows?

Were memories of those mistakes echoing through Art Rooney II’s head as he gave the word to Kevin Colbert to lower the hammer on yet another franchise icon?

Or did salary cap realities simply force any shred of sentimentality out of the Steelers?

No one can be sure.

The Steelers did start the off season $20 to $25 million over the 2012 salary cap. Colbert and Omar Khan did they damdest to giggle the numbers to the extent where its reasonable to ask whether the Steelers are mortgaging their future.

But the contract restructurings of Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Ben Roethlisberger were all to get the Steelers under the cap.

Which only reaffirms the status quo.

  • Positioning the Steelers for the future required untethering the organizations it from its recent past.

So now gone are James Farrior, Chris Kemoeatu, Aaron Smith, Hines Ward, Arnaz Battle, and Bryant McFadden.

Giving these six players their walking papers freed up approximately 10 million dollars in salary cap space.

  • But the Steelers are also saying goodbye to 12 Super Bowl rings if you throw in Chris Hoke’s retirement.

That statement is perhaps overly dramatic, because 5 of the 6 players had seen age, injury or ineffectiveness drastically reduce their role from 2010 to 2011. James Farrior was the only starter released, the only player with no heir apparent, and the only one who arguably could have contributed in 2012 were salary on consideration.

But winning is just as much about the intangible as it is about the measurable.

  • James Farrior, Hines Ward and Arnz Battle were all captains of their respective units
  • When William Gay and Kennan Lewis sent Bryant McFadden to the bench, McFadden embraced his role on specials teams with relish.
  • Aaron Smith never hesitated to take younger players whom he knew had been drafted to replace him, under his wing.

However necessary their departures might have been, each of the men the Steelers parted wasy with was an important leader, both on and off the field.

That’s not something to gloss over lightly, as the Redskins experience of the 90’s reveals.

The first Joe Gibbs era in Washington ended just as the salary cap era was beginning. In the blink of an eye veterans like Art Monk, Ernest Byner, Charles Mann, Ricky Sanders and other Super Bowl veterans were gone. These were players who had learned how to win, a lesson which their successors are still struggling to master almost 20 years later.

The Steelers recent “termination” binge was not as wholesale as Washington’s was in the mid-90’s. By all accounts the organizational culture on the South Side is far different that of Redskins Park, and one that’s strong enough to manage the coming locker room leadership transition.

  • But the Redskins lesson reminds us that there is no set formula for letting go of Championship Era players as they grow old.

Regardless of whether you let your veterans go too late or too soon, its always about getting the next decision right, and it is rarely just a question of simple numbers.

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Steelers to Cut James Farrior

If Kevin Colbert has put in a more draining week during his time with the Steelers, this past week has to run a close second.

Already having cut a Super Bowl MVP and the franchise’s best 3-4 defensive end, Colbert again had to drop the hammer James Farrior, who for a decade had been a mainstay on one NFL’s top defenses of the decade.

Of the recent cuts, Farrior’s perhaps comes the closest to qualifying as a surprise, although it was quite clear that either he or counterpart Larry Foote would have to go.

Nonetheless, the decision to part ways with James Farrior marks a sea-change for the Steelers defense, as it was Farrior’s job to make the defensive calls in the huddle and perform the necessary adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

  • Now that responsibility falls on someone else.

Farrior departs Pittsburgh with no obvious heir apparent. Foote will likely take his place in the starting line up, but Foote is not a long-term answer.

Stevenson Sylvester showed promise as a rookie in 2010, and while he continued to shine on special teams in 2011, he failed to impress in his limited appearances at linebacker in 2011.

Prior to Farrior’s departure, the Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac commented on Twitter that: If Farrior goes, start fitting Steelers uniform for Dont’a Hightower.

Top Steelers Free Agent Pick Up Ever?

The Steelers will never be known for the free agents it signs, but perhaps it should. When the Steelers do go out to sign a high profile free agent, they rarely miss.

  • In the 1990’s Kevin Greene, John L. Williams, Ray Seals, and Wil Wolford were all free agents signings that delivered handsome dividends.
  • In this decade, impact free agents pick ups came in the form of Ryan Clark, Flozell Adams, and Jeff Hartings.

Bill Parcells used his first pick with the Jets to select James Farrior in 1997, and played the James Madison University graduate at right outside linebacker for 5 years. Farrior played well enough in that role, but Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher saw something that Parcells and his successors missed.

  • The Steelers signed James Farrior as a free agent in 2002 to replace Earl Holmes and neither side ever looked back.

Farrior immediately established himself as a leader of the defense, leading the team in tackles in ’03, ’04, ’06, ’07, ’08, and ’09. Farrior earned Pro Bowl honors in 2004 and 2008, and incredibly only missed two games to injury between 2002 and 2011.

During that entire time, whenever a tackle was being made, regardless of where it happened on the field, if Farrior wasn’t making it you were almost certain to see number 51 coming into focus before the whistle blew.

As important as those measurables were, Farrior’s contributions in the huddle and off the field were indispensable. Farrior was a team leader who not only set the tone on the field but also functioned as a player who enforced discipline in the locker room.

  • Farrior also set an example with his dedication and ethic of responsibility.

Farrior was a second late on two key plays late on the Bengals winning drive at home vs. the Steelers. Farrior seemed to take those plays, as well as other mishaps as a personal affront.

Accordingly, he redoubled his off season training regime, reported to camp in the best shape of his life, and rebounded in 2010 with a 109 tackle, six sack, 5 passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery performance.

James Farrior’s Last Stand

Longevity is one of the signs of greatness in the NFL and Farrior had his share. Even the great ones can cheat father time for just so long.

Age began to impact Farrior’s game in 2011, evident in his declining production and increasing difficulty in covering receivers downfield. Farrior’s age, his salary for 2012, and the Steelers salary cap woes prompted the team to decide to move on.

  • Like his counter part and fellow captain Hines Ward, Farrior must make way for younger, and cheaper, players on the roster.

And just as is the case with Hines Ward, Mike Tomlin will not easily replace the leadership void created by James Farrior’s absence.

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Steelers to Part Ways with Aaron Smith, Chris Kemoeatu

One day after saying good bye to Hines Ward, their franchise leading and future Hall of Fame wide receiver, the Steelers also decided to part ways with the best 3-4 defensive end in franchise history.

Ed Bouchette is reporting that Aaron Smith will not be back with the Steelers in 2012. Unlike Ward, Smith will likely begin, in Chuck Noll’s words, his “life’s work” as he has indicated that he has zero interest in playing elsewhere, which is most likely a sound decision, given his history of injury.

Smith finished the 2007, 2009, and 2011 seasons on injured reserve. Likewise he sat out most of 2010 injured.

2008 was the last full season where Smith played healthy. Its no concidence that that was season in which the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII that year.

Chris Kemoeatu Also Cut

Ed Bouchetee is also reporting that the Steelers will cut Chris Kemoeatu. Kemoeatu was as sixth round pick in the 2005 draft. Possessing incredible size, Kemoeatu always tantalized.

However, he did not start until the 2008 season, after Alan Fanaca’s departure, and did a serviceable job as a starter over the next four seasons.

However by 2011 poor play and inane penalties landed Kemoeatu on the bench, and his release was widely anticipated.

With these latest moves, the Steelers have freed between 8 and 10 million dollars from the salary cap, which will allow them to sign their draft picks and give them a shot at resigning their own players and perhaps players from outside the organization.

Casey’s Turn at Bat?

If reports are correct, the Steelers have yet to finish their house cleaning. It is generally assumed that either James Farrior or Larry Foote will be waived in the coming days and, although Kevin Colbert’s comments at the scouting combine might indicate otherwise, Casey Hampton’s name has been mentioned as a possible cut.

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Hines Ward Portrait of a Pittsburgh Steeler, 1998-2011

It happens, apparently, about once a generation.

So it was with Franco Harris.

So it was with Rod Woodson.

And so it is apparently with Hines Ward.

The Pittsburgh Steelers today announced that they will release Hines Ward. Another Steeler Hall of Famer will finish his career elsewhere.

Who knows what fate awaits Ward with his new team?

Franco finished his career with the Seattle Seahawks, and looked every bit the washed up running back doing it.

Rod Woodson first went to San Francisco, which confirmed that his days as a shutdown corner were over. But San Fran was only the first stop, as he moved to Baltimore where he made the switch and played All-Pro Caliber football as a safety. He would later finish his career with the Raiders, we he also played at a high-level.

It is fitting perhaps that this move comes on February 29th, a day that is only repeated once every four years.

Any use a team would be lucky to draft a player of Ward’s caliber and quality once every four years.

From Afterthought to the Mainstay of an Offense

The Steelers drafted Hines Ward with their third 3rd round pick of the 1998 draft. They apparently thought that Chris Conrad (an OT who blossomed into a total bust) was better than Ward.

On the day he was drafted ESPN commentators immediately speculated that he was to become the next “Slash” due to his experience playing quarterback, running back, and wide receiver in Georgia.

Ward saw no such action with the Steelers, although his first claim to national fame came as a rookie on Monday Night when he completed a pass to Kordell Stewart.

Absent Yancy Thingpen and with Charles Johnson’s development waning, wide receiver became a glaring need for the Steelers in 1998.

  • Few fans, professionals, or even coaches realized that the Steelers had their answer already on the roster.

Hines Ward only caught 15 passes as a rookie, nothing special to the untrained eye. But the astute observer could see that Ward not only led the team in yards-per-catch but also in special teams tackles.

The Steelers nonetheless used their next two first round draft picks on wide receivers. But it was Ward who would survive to lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL where he won MVP honors.

Linebacker in an Wideout’s Body

Mike Tomlin said on more than one occasion that Hines Ward was sort of line a linebacker trapped in a wide receiver’s body. That’s because Ward gave everything he had on every play.

  • No one was spared his punishing blocks,
  • No errant ball flew uncontested,
  • No extra yardage was sacrificed to the safety of the sideline

Absent the athletic gifts that Lynn Swann or John Stallworth had, but Hines Ward made up for with his dedication, preparation, and hustle. Hines Ward was also a leader and a play maker. Whether the quarterback was Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomzack, Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon, Byron Leftwich or Ben Roethlisberger, when the game was on the line and a catch simply had to be made, Ward was likely the intended target.

Georgia Bulldog in Winter

One of the sad truths about sports is that time eventually robs a player of his skills. And, for the past several summers in Latrobe, some reporter would always say, “This is the summer that Hines Ward began to slow a step.”

Ward proved them wrong year-in-and-year-out. Even during the 2010 season, when his production dipped, Ward continued to make catches that counted, and had the Steelers won Super Bowl XLV, Ward most certainly would have been the team MVP.

Alas, father time caught up with Hines Ward in 2011. He continued to start in spite of Anthony Brown’s rise, and while he was still catching balls, Ward wasn’t quite the same. (For an in depth look at Hine’s Ward 2011 season, click here to read Georgia Bulldog in Winter.)

An injury during the Ravens game was followed by a benching, and by his ultimately successful quest to reach the 1000 catch mark with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bitter, but Necessary Medicine

The Steelers decision to part ways with Hines Ward is a bitter one but ultimately a necessary one. During the latter part of the 2011 season, Ward did not look the same. He had difficulty getting open and worse yet, seemed to have even more difficulty catching the ball with any degree of consistency.

As Dejan Kovacevic of the Tribune Review noted, Ward’s final regular season carry, a 5 yard loss on a shovel pass, seemed to punctuate just how deep into decline Ward had slipped.

Yes, perhaps with an off season of rest and a finer understanding of his new role Ward could have come back and contributed in 2012.

But the Steelers are barely at or under the salary cap, and they perhaps are already mortgaging their future. They simply can’t afford to reserve precious salary cap and roster space that might allow them to secure Mike Wallace’s or Jerricho Cotchery’s future with the team.

Teams never easily “replace” leaders like Hines Ward.

Hines Ward’s absence will create a void on the field, in the huddle, and in the locker room that could take season’s to fill.

Following the Emperor Instead of The Bus

On the day he retired, Chuck Noll observed that it would have been great to win the Super Bowl and call it a day with a tremendous hurrah! But it didn’t happen that way.

Moments like these make you appreciate just how lucky Jerome Bettis was to go out on top.

Unfortunately for Ward, he follows the path trod by The Emperor instead of The Bus.

Hines Ward’s exit is necessary in a football sense, but nonetheless bitter medicine indeed because Hines is every bit the portrait of a prototypical Pittsburgh Steeler.

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Are the Steelers Mortgaging Their Future?

The Steelers of the ‘70s won four Super Bowls in six years largely because they out drafted the rest of the league.

One part of this success came the Steelers active scouting and drafting players from the Historically Black Colleges circuit, a talent trove that most of the rest of the league willfully ignored then.

That foresight was important, but it would not have paid off in the form of Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, John Stallworth, and Mel Blount had Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Jack Butler, Bill Nunn Sr. and Chuck Noll not been superior talent evaluators.

  • The Steelers system delivered Hall of Famers whether they were drafting first in 1970 or 21st in 1974.

All good things come to an end, and this happened in Pittsburgh when few were noticing. In the midst of their Super Bowl runs the Steelers shifted their drafting strategy.

With a roster stocked with All Pro talent they veered away from taking the best man on the board, fearing he might not be able to justify a roster spot, and started seeking players who might have “slipped” for some reason.

The results were far from fruitful.

This neat little story is relevant today because it is a fair question to ask if something similar might be unfolding before our eyes.

Mastering the Salary Cap

Once upon a time conventional wisdom held that free agency would do to the Steelers what it did to the Pirates. Critics derided Dan Rooney as a cheap sake who had no hope of competing with free spenders like Jack Kent Cooke, who was the Daniel Snyder of his day.

  • The opposite of course happened.

The Steelers remained competitive through the 1990’s and thrived in the ‘00’s because they pioneered the principles for mastering the salary cap:

  • Avoid bidding wars
  • Focus on resigning your own, home-grown talent
  • Never over pay
  • Minimize the amount waste money (salary cap space devoted to players not on the roster)

The Steelers are not likely to get into any bidding wars anytime soon, nor are they likely to go on a shopping spree. As for over paying, if Lawrence Timmons does not play dramatically better than he did in 2011 they will have overpaid for him. But beyond that, the Steelers have been and should remain good about getting more bang for their buck.

Which brings us to our last point.

If you guessed that they all signed contracts last summer that the Steelers have turned around and renegotiated in less than a year, you guessed right.

The Steelers started the NFL off season about 15 million dollars over the NFL’s 2012 Salary cap and with Ben Roethlisberger’s recent renegotiation, have just about gotten to or perhaps slightly under the cap.

  • That is good news of course.

But how, and why this was necessary remains a different question, given that such drastic renegotiations are far from Standard Operating procedure on the South Side, to borrow the words of Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain.

The mechanics of renegotiating a contract are simple: A team converts a part of the player’s base salary for the said year (or years) into a signing bonus, which then gets paid to the player in a lump sum, and is divided among the remaining years of his contract.

In pure dollar terms it amounts to a wash for the player because he loses no money.

For the team the issue is more complicated, because money converted to a bonus remains on the team’s books and can never be erased. In other words, if Willie Colon suffers another debilitating injury in the season opener and decides to call it a career, the Steelers are on the hook for his entire bonus.

The Road from Here

The NFL’s salary cap is expected to expand greatly when the new television deals kick in, easing the future bit of already paid bonuses. That’s fine, but that is still a few seasons away.

In the mean time, Omar Khan, Kevin Colbert, and Art Rooney II have taken a calculated risk. Their margin for injury or error is greatly reduced.

  • The flexibility that allowed the Steelers to bring in Flozell Adams when Willie Colon went down is something they’ll likely miss for the next season or two.
  • Signing Mike Wallace is also greatly complicated by their current situation.

It is far too early to say that the current Steelers brain trust is making the same types of errors with the salary cap that their brethren made with the draft in the late ‘70’s.

But it is a situation that bears watching.

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Roethlisberger Restructures Contract

Like Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, and Willie Colon, Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has agreed to restructure his contract to help the team gain some much-needed salary cap relief.

When the 2011 season ended, the Steelers were proportedly between 15 and 20 million dollars over the NFL’s projected 2012 salary cap. The 2012 salary cap goes into effect just before the mid-March free agent signing period, and no team may be over the cap.

With the Roethlisberger restructuring the Steelers gained 8 more million dollars, and are believed to be at or very close to the salary cap.

Not Out of the Woods Yet….

The Steelers, however, are far from out of the woods. They still have several of their own free agents that they would like to resign, Mike Wallace being chief amoung them, and to do that they’ll need to clear more cap space, in addition to needed space to sign their draft picks.

The Steelers have already parted ways with Arnz Battle and Bryant McFadden, and General Manager Kevin Colbert indicated that further cuts are to come.

Speaking at the NFL scouting combine, Colbert clarified that the Steelers will not make those moves until the NFL clarifies what the final cap number is to be.

Chris Kemoeatu is said to be on his way out and a strong possiblity remains that Hines Ward will also be released.

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Steelers Say Hello to Haley, Good Bye to Battle, Bryant McFadden

The Pittsburgh Steelers named Todd Haley their new offensive coordiantor this week, ending a lengthy search process to replace Bruce Arians.

As they said hello to a familiar face, Haley is in fact the son of Dick Haley who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn as the team’s director of player personnel during the drafts of the 1970’s, they also began what will likely be a lengthy, and at times painful series of good byes.

The Steelers are projected to be 10 to 15 million dollars over the NFL’s salary cap for 2012. To get under the team will need to clear a lot of space, and the only way to do that is to part ways with veterans, many of whom will walk out the door past two Super Bowl trophies that they had a hand in winning.

The process began today as the Steelers waived Bryant McFadden and Arnz Battle. McFadden was a rookie in Super Bowl XL and a starter in Super Bowl XLIII. He departed to Arizona after 2008, but returned via trade during the 2010 NFL Draft. McFadden was often injured during his second stint with the Steelers, although he did remain a consistent special teams contributor during the 2011 season.

Battle was one of the members brought in by the Steelers suprise 2010 free agent signing spree, and contributed heavily to the improvement on special teams that year. His contributions were missed when he fell injured during the 2011 season, but ultimately salary cap needs made him expendable.

These two cuts were both anticipated and fairly easy.

The next ones promise to be more difficult.

Stay Steel Curtain Rising will be commenting on those as they happen, as well as offering commentary on both Todd Haley and Bruce Arians’ departure.

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