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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Free agents - defense

With free agency starting Friday, here's a look at some defensive players who may interest the Steelers.

Now that the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut ties with linebacker Joey Porter, the team’s depth at the position – already a weak point – looks as if it will be even thinner.

The problem is that the pickings are pretty thin in this year’s free agent linebacking field when the market opens Friday. And you can bet that players such as Chicago’s Lance Briggs and Baltimore’s Adalius Thomas are going to command top dollar, something the Steelers will be unwilling to pay. In fact, Porter is also likely to draw big money on the free agent market, though probably not as much as $4.5-million base salary he was scheduled to earn with the Steelers.

So if the Steelers are still planning on running a 3-4 defense, they’ll probably want to add at least one veteran linebacker in free agency in addition to selecting one in the first few rounds of the draft.

The top two mid-level outside linebackers available who fit into the 3-4 defense are New England’s Tully Banta-Cain and Houston’s Antwan Peek.

The 6-2, 250-pound Banta-Cain is coming off the best of his four NFL seasons having recorded 43 tackles and 5.5 sacks last season for the Patriots. Considered a smart overachiever, the 26-year-old Banta-Cain may just be coming into his own.

Peek, a 6-3, 250-pound converted college defensive end is well-known to new head coach Mike Tomlin. Tomlin was an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati when Peek was a standout defensive end there.

Peek lost playing time in 2006 after the Texans switched from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, but in 2005 he managed 46 tackles and six sacks.

One other linebacker who is well-known to Tomlin is Minnesota's Napoleon Harris.

The 6-2, 255-pound Harris is versatile enough to play inside or outside. Harris had 59 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions starting at middle linebacker last season in Tomlin’s only year as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator.

A player who is well known to the Steelers’ coaching staff is Cincinnati’s Brian Simmons, who was released Wednesday in a cost-cutting move. A nine-year NFL veteran, Simmons played under current Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau when he was Cincinnati’s head coach.

Like Harris, Simmons is a player who can play inside or outside. The 6-3, 240-pounder excels in pass coverage, having recorded at least two interceptions in each of the past four seasons. He played inside and outside in 2006 to help ease the loss of O’Dell Thurman to suspension and had 60 tackles and two interceptions in 11 games. He recorded 83 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions playing on the outside in 2005.

Tennessee’s Peter Sirmon is another possibility the Steelers may look at. The 6-3, 236-pound Sirmon had 88 tackles, .5 sacks and an interception in 2006.

It’s a good thing this is a strong defensive line draft because there isn’t much second-level talent available at that position. Kansas City’s Jared Allen, Atlanta’s Patrick Kearney and Chicago’s Ian Scott figure to garner the most interest on the free agent market and will be out of Pittsburgh’s price range.

A cheaper alternative at end could be Tampa Bay’s Dewayne White, another player Tomlin knows well from his days as a secondary coach for the Buccaneers.

The 6-2, 273-pound White has recorded 11 sacks in the past two seasons and is well-suited to a 4-3 defense, something Tomlin has said the Steelers could shift to at times. At worst, he could offer the Steelers a pass-rushing specialist opposite Brett Keisel in the nickel and dime defense.

If the Steelers are looking to add more beef up front, Tennessee’s Robaire Smith and Denver’s Michael Meyers could help out.

A 10-year NFL veteran, the 6-3, 300-pound Meyers had a career-best 57 tackles to go with two sacks in 2006 playing for a Broncos’ defense that proved difficult to run the ball against.

Smith (6-4, 310) has experience in both the 4-3 as a tackle and in the 3-4 as an end from his playing days in Houston. He had 44 tackles and half a sack last season with Tennessee after recorded a career-high 68 tackles to go with 1.5 sacks playing 3-4 end for Houston the year before.

Given the young talent the Steelers have at cornerback and safety, it’s unlikely they will make any free agent moves at either of those positions.

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