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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Free agents - offense

With free agency starting Friday, here's a look at some players on the offensive side of the ball that may interest the Steelers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been big players in the free agent market, choosing to keep their own players rather than jump into the free agent market with both feet.

But they have added some key players over the years, center Jeff Hartings and linebacker Kevin Greene being the most noteworthy.

Once again this year the Steelers won’t be swimming in the free agent pool with the big spenders, but could look to pick off some secondary players who will fit into their scheme.

New head coach Mike Tomlin has stated several times that he'd like to acquire a quality backup to running back Willie Parker. The draft would be one way to do that, while free agency would give the Steelers a chance to land more of a sure thing.

Running back Chris Brown has fallen out of favor in Tennessee and the 6-3, 220-pound Brown could be a nice change-of-pace back to help spell Parker.

A slashing runner with some power, Brown has played in 42 games in his four seasons in the NFL, making 28 starts. He’s rushed for 2,295 yards on 541 carries and scored 11 touchdowns. He’s also not a bad receiver out of the backfield, catching 55 passes for 539 yards. He’s had some injury problems during his career, but if the Steelers could limit him to five to 10 carries per game, he would be a nice compliment to Parker.

If the Steelers want to go for a completely different style of running back, power runners such as Houston’s Ron Dayne or Washington’s T.J. Duckett might fit the bill.

Dayne, a former first-round pick of the Giants, resurrected his career in Houston last season, playing in 11 games and making six starts while carrying the ball 151 times for 612 yards with five touchdowns. His 4.1 yards per carry average was above his career mark of 3.7 yards per carry, much of which was put up when he served as a change-of-pace back to Tiki Barber.

At 5-11, 243 pounds, the seven-year veteran has played in 83 games, making 20 starts and has 789 career carries for 2,949 yards with 22 touchdowns.

The 6-0, 254-pound Duckett languished on the bench last season in Washington, carrying just 38 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Like Dayne, he has served as a change-of-pace back in the past, teaming with Warrick Dunn in Atlanta.

Duckett has appeared in 65 career games, making 14 starts. He has 590 career rushing attempts for 2,307 yards with 33 touchdowns. Duckett is probably the best pure power back available on this year’s free agent market, but, like Brown, has had some injury problems in the past.

A cheaper option than those three might be Jacksonville’s LaBrandon Toefield. At 5-11, 232 pounds, Toefield has the size the Steelers are looking for in a complimentary back to Parker, but doesn’t have much of a career resume, having only seen spot duty for the Jaguars where he has been stuck behind Fred Taylor, Greg Jones and Maurice Jones-Drew.

But in four seasons, Toefield has appeared in 43 games, making two starts, carrying the ball 150 times for 545 yards and six touchdowns. He’s also caught 45 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns.

The Steelers have some openings on the offensive line with the retirement of center Jeff Hartings and the impending free agency of right tackle Max Starks. The Steelers are expected to make a qualifying offer for Starks, a restricted free agent, but won’t go too high to match any offers for him.

A better option than Starks might be Kansas City’s Jordan Black, a 6-5, 310-pound tackle who has started on both sides for the Chiefs and would give the Steelers some versatility up front.

Having played in Kansas City’s scheme, you can be assured that Black can run block, something that will still be a priority under Tomlin.

If Black is out of the Steelers’ price range, they may want to consider Buffalo’s Mike Gandy, a 6-4, 310-pound veteran of six NFL seasons who has started at both left guard and left tackle in his career.

The Steelers have traditionally liked linemen who can move around to different positions and Gandy would certainly fit the bill there, giving the team a lineman who could not only compete with Starks should he also return, but also for a starting spot at right guard. Gandy has also been very durable, playing in 64 games and making 62 career starts.

If the team decides to bring somebody in to challenge Kendall Simmons at right guard or give itself the option of moving Simmons to center, Washington’s Derrick Dockery would be a nice fit.

The 6-6, 335-pound Dockery has never missed a game in his four NFL seasons, playing in 64 games with 61 starts at left guard.

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