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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hampton deal a good one

After learning of the terms of Casey Hampton's new deal with the Steelers – three years at just over $21 million with $11 million guaranteed - I couldn't help but think about what a bargain the Steelers got.

Think about it.

Had they franchised Hampton, he would have been guaranteed $7 million in 2010 and would have been a free agent again after that.

So for $4 million more in guaranteed money, they can keep him in 2011 and 2012 as well. That's not too bad.

When you also consider Hampton counted just under $7 million against the team's cap in 2009, you also see the value in this deal.

Pittsburgh can now select a nose tackle in the draft and not feel the need to rush him into the lineup.

© Hampton's deal also allowed the Steelers the opportunity to place the franchise tag on placekicker Jeff Reed. While some felt it would be prudent to franchise Hampton to keep him hungry for his next contract, it makes more sense with Reed.

He's been arrested twice in the past year - while supposedly playing for a contract. Now, perhaps he'll keep his nose clean in an effort to get a long-term deal.

© Of interest Thursday was the fact New Orleans didn't tender offers to running back Mike Bell or guard Jahri Evans. Both would interest me as unrestricted free agents if I were in the Steelers' front office.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Looking at free agent linebackers, defensive linemen

As I do every offseason, I’ll take a look over the next few weeks at the Steelers’ potential free agents and possible veteran replacements or upgrades.

Keep in mind that the Steelers have never been major players on the free agent market. So no matter how much you want them to go out and sign say, Terrell Owens, it’s not going to happen.

This week, we’ll take a look at the defensive linemen and linebackers.

Steelers potential losses
Casey Hampton, NT
Travis Kirschke, DE
Rocky Boiman, LB

The Steelers are going to place the franchise tag on Hampton to keep the 33-year-old nose tackle around for at least one more year while they work a new guy - likely a draft pick - into the rotation.

They’ve also got steady backup Chris Hoke to hold down the fort at that position.

But if Kirschke decides to hang up his pads - which is likely at this point - it leaves a bit of a hole in on the roster.

Sure, the Steelers would like to get younger on the defensive line and Ziggy Hood will probably be the top backup in 2010, but as they found out in 2009 when Aaron Smith was lost for the season, depth on the defensive line is critical.

Promising youngster Sonny Harris is also waiting in the wings, as is Nick Eason, but the team may want to hedge its bets against Harris continuing to improve and/or bringing in a veteran to challenge Eason.

At linebacker, it’s no secret that James Farrior has lost a step and the Steelers could be looking for a possible replacement in the draft or through free agency.

Boiman was signed to help improve the special teams play and could return for the veteran minimum.

So who might the Steelers look at on the free agent market?

On the defensive line, I like New England’s Jarvis Green and Buffalo’s Ryan Denney.

The 31-year-old Green has plenty of experience playing in a 3-4 defense and at 6-3, 285 pounds, would be a nice addition to the rotation the team likes to use with its defensive line.

Denney is a player the Steelers liked coming out of BYU in 2002. In fact, the BYU connection could come into play. Both Hoke and Brett Keisel played with Denney at BYU and could possibly help talk the veteran into coming to Pittsburgh as a backup with the hopes of joining a winner.

At 6-7, 265 pounds, the 32-year-old Denney is a little light to play in the 3-4, but with his frame, adding a little bulk shouldn’t be a problem.

At linebacker, Keyaron Fox will likely get a shot at spelling Farrior, while the Steelers could also look to the draft for a future replacement.

But if the Steelers are thinking about looking to the free agent market for Farrior, Chicago’s Pisa Tinoisamoa could fit the bill. Like Farrior, Tinoisamoa is an undersized outside linebacker who could transition well to the inside, where his coverage skills would serve the Steelers well.

The 6-1, 230-pound 29-year-old has seven career interceptions and 10 career sacks but is coming off an injury-shortened season.

If the Steelers are looking for more of a thumper in the middle to pair with Lawrence Timmons, San Francisco’s Matt Wilhelm, 29, could fit the bill. Though he played mainly on special teams for the 49ers in 2009, making 18 tackles, Wilhelm had 97 tackles with three interceptions and a sack in 2007 as a starter for San Diego.

There could also be the possibility of a blast from the past rejoining the team. Larry Foote asked for and received his release from the Steelers in 2009 when it became apparent he was going to be replaced by Timmons. But Foote could return and slide into his old role in a three-man rotation with Farrior and Timmons after spending a season in Detroit.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

2010 Franchise numbers

Here are the 2010 franchise tag salaries. They are arrived at by taking the average of the top five salaries at each position.
It is any wonder why the Steelers are considering franchising Casey Hampton or Jeff Reed?

Dollar values are, of course, in millions.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Free agency look: kickers and tight ends

As I do every offseason, I’ll take a look over the next few weeks at the Steelers’ potential free agents and possible veteran replacements or upgrades.

Keep in mind that the Steelers have never been major players on the free agent market. So no matter how much you want them to go out and sign say, Terrell Owens, it’s not going to happen.

This week, we’ll take a look at the kickers and tight ends.

Steelers potential losses
Jeff Reed, PK, unrestricted
Daniel Sepulveda, P, restricted
Matt Spaeth, TE, restricted

The Steelers have made re-signing Reed one of their offseason priorities and should be able to get something done.

Despite his legal problems – at some point, Reed is going to have to grow up – he’s been one of the more reliable kickers in the NFL. Yes, he missed a couple of kicks in Chicago this season, but he’s made a lot more of those kind of kicks that he’s missed during his career. And as we saw throughout this season’s playoffs, that’s a rare commodity.

Sepulveda is heading into his restricted free agent season, while Spaeth will get a second season of restricted free agency when no deal is reached on a collective bargaining agreement before the March 4 deadline.

The Steelers will make tender offers for both.

Sepulveda has struggled somewhat in cold weather, but as he gets the opportunity to do more of it, he should get better. In addition, he was coming off knee surgery on his plant leg in 2009 and should be considerably stronger in 2010.

Spaeth doesn’t do any one thing particularly well, but he’s a big target and has proven to be a reliable pass catcher when filling in for Heath Miller. He’s too tall to ever be a great blocker - it’s just too easy to get up underneath him – but the Steelers will likely use David Johnson more as their blocking tight end in 2010.

So what happens if talks with Reed break down?

There are a number of solid kickers who could be on the free agent market March 4.

Leading that group is Cincinnati’s Shayne Graham. I know what you’re thinking, Graham missed some big kicks for the Bengals in the playoffs this season.

But he’s also one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history and has a history of kicking at Heinz Field and other cold weather cities. There are conflicting reports about whether the Bengals will make an effort to re-sign him, but if they don’t, he would be a good replacement for Reed.

Arizona’s Neil Rackers will also be an unrestricted free agent and it wouldn’t be a stretch to see the Cardinals and Steelers basically trade kickers. Remember, former Steelers special teams coach Kevin Spencer is now with the Cardinals and he and Reed had a strong relationship.

Rackers had some groin injury problems in 2009, but has been a very productive kicker for the Cardinals. He’s also averaged nearly one touchback per game for his career.

Jay Feely has kicked for four NFL teams, most recently the Jets, for who he has made 54 of 64 field goals in the past two seasons. In addition, he’s also had 17 touchbacks in the past two seasons.

Like Graham, Feely missed a couple of field goal attempts in the Jets’ final playoff game, but one was over 50 yards and his career percentage of 81.6 percent is very good.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Reed, Hampton, Clark the priorities

The Steelers have identified the three players they consider their free agent priorities and, to what should be nobody's surprise, they are placekicker Jeff Reed, nose tackle Casey Hampton and free safety Ryan Clark.

The Steelers will make overtures to the agents of those players in the coming month leading up to the opening of free agency March 5.

Contract offers will not be made to cornerback Deshea Townsend and running back Willie Parker before the start of free agency, but the club will not rule out offering those players deals at some point as well. It's unlikely that either will return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have both a franchise and transition tag available and could use both.

Though the Steelers are tight-lipped about the order in which they are placing the three priority players, it is believed to be Hampton, Reed and then Clark.

Clark, however, could be the easiest of the three to sign, giving Pittsburgh the option of using its tags on Hampton and Reed.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Free agency look: The offensive line

As I do every offseason, I’ll take a look over the next few weeks at the Steelers’ potential free agents and possible veteran replacements or upgrades.

Keep in mind that the Steelers have never been major players on the free agent market. So no matter how much you want them to go out and sign say, Terrell Owens, it’s not going to happen.

This week, we’ll take a look at the offensive line.

Steelers potential losses
Willie Colon, RT
Darnell Stapleton, G/C (restricted)

The Steelers, like many teams, will be watching the collective bargaining agreement negotiations closely.

If no new agreement is reached, Colon, along with a number of other players, will be restricted free agents rather than unrestricted.

And no other position may be affected by that like this group of offensive linemen.

The Steelers would like to have Colon back to man their right tackle position. He’s gotten better the more he’s played and has turned into a good, but not great, player.

But can the Steelers do better by bringing in a free agent?

Certainly a free agent lineman would help this team a great deal. The Steelers have not done a great job in recent years drafting on the offensive line. They haven't taken one in the first two rounds of the draft since Kendall Simmons in 2002 and several of the later draft picks haven't worked out as well as they would like.

If the Steelers choose to go the free agent route, there are a number of intriguing possibilities, most of who will be restricted if there is no new collective bargaining agreement.

And that could be the rub.

For example, the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints have three linemen, tackles Jammal Brown and Jermon Bushrod, and guard Jahri Evans, who are scheduled to reach free agency.

Brown, Bushrod and Evans will be restricted if there is no new collective bargaining agreement.

The problem for the Saints will be decided how to tender each of those players.

Brown, who will turn 29 next month, is the oldest of the trio, but might also be the most valuable. The former Oklahoma star is a natural left tackle with 58 career starts under his belt.

Bushrod, however, filled in admirably for Brown after his injury and, at 26, is three years younger.

Evans, meanwhile, was the team’s best run blocker from his right guard position.

And, as the Steelers know all too well, there is a heavy price that goes along with being a Super Bowl champion, making it unlikely that New Orleans will be able to keep all three.

Brown would certainly be an upgrade for the Steelers, but, even coming off an injury, his price tag will likely be out of the team’s range. That’s especially true considering how much money the Steelers are paying Max Starks. They could sign Brown and move Starks back to right tackle – a move that would really solidify the team’s line – but would likely then have $12 to $14-million per season wrapped up in their offensive tackles.

Of the three, Bushrod, a Towson product, might be the best fit, if the Saints tender him with a low offer. Bushrod is a former fourth-round draft pick.

A number of other decent options are also available, but are also looking at the possibility of restricted free agency.

That group would include San Diego left Marcus McNeil, Minnesota right tackle Ryan Cook and New England guard Logan Mankins.

Of the unrestricted group, there are two players who are young enough to still have some upside who have not lived up to their billing with their current teams, St. Louis’ Alex Barron and Green Bay’s Daryn Colledge.

Barron, a former first-round draft pick, has been plagued by penalties playing left tackle for the Rams, particularly false starts. But perhaps a change of scenery and joining a winning program could bring out the best in him.

Colledge, meanwhile, is headed for unrestricted free agency, but the word out of Green Bay is that the former second-round draft pick won’t be tendered an offer.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Congratulations to Coach LeBeau

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has finally gotten his just due, being named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It has long been one of the most serious cases of injustice that LeBeau was not already in the hall.

LeBeau set a record for defensive backs with 171 consecutive games played and also had 62 career interceptions in 14 NFL seasons. A three-time Pro Bowl selection, LeBeau was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1959 and released in training camp. He went on to sign with the Detroit Lions and has spent the past 51 years as a player or coach in the NFL.

Also inducted were former Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm, linebacker Ricky Jackson, running back Floyd Little, defensive tackle John Randle, wide receiver Jerry Rice and running back Emmitt Smith.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Who I like, Super Bowl version

Let me first say that this promises to be an exciting Super Bowl if you like to see teams go up and down the field.

The Saints and Colts can both move the ball in chunks. But while much of the focus on this game has been on the offenses, it will be the team that makes a big defensive play that wins it.

Indianapolis is a five-point favorite and that is mainly because of one factor, Peyton Manning.

A win in this game would solidify Manning's place among the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.

But New Orleans' Drew Brees isn't bad in his own right.

The fact that Dwight Freeney figures to be limited and Reggie Wayne suffered a knee injury in practice Friday scares me a little bit, but I think the Colts win a tight one.

Take Indianapolis to win, but New Orleans to cover in a 34-31 Colts victory.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Bullet Bill Dudley dies

One of the all-time great Steelers, Bullet Bill Dudley has died at 88 after a short illness.

Dudley, who resided in Lynchburg, Va., was the Steelers' No. 1 pick in the 1942 draft and is the last Pittsburgh running back to lead the NFL in rushing.

After a stint in the military during World War II, where he served as a B-25 and B-29 pilot in the Pacific, Dudley returned to the NFL.

In 1946, Dudley led the league in rushing (604 yards), interceptions (10) and punt returns (27) and was named NFL Most Valuable Player. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966.

After a falling out with the Pittsburgh coaching staff, Dudley was traded to the Detroit Lions.

© Steelers director of pro scouting Doug Whaley has been hired as the assistant general manager of the Buffalo Bills.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Looking at free agent skill positions

As I do every offseason, I’ll take a look over the next few weeks at the Steelers’ potential free agents and possible veteran replacements or upgrades.

Keep in mind that the Steelers have never been major players on the free agent market. So no matter how much you want them to go out and sign say, Terrell Owens, it’s not going to happen.

This week, we’ll take a look at the skill positions, QB/WR/RB

Steelers potential losses
Charlie Batch, QB
Willie Parker, RB
Joey Galloway, WR
Carey Davis, FB

As you can see, there’s not a lot here – other than Parker – that cannot be replaced.

Galloway was a late-season replacement for Limas Sweed – more on him later – who never saw action in a game, while Batch made it through just a handful of plays before suffering a broken left wrist while replacing Ben Roethlisberger in an overtime loss at Kansas City. He was subsequently passed by Dennis Dixon as the team’s No. 2 quarterback.

The team thought so little of Davis, meanwhile, that he was released at the end of training camp, only to be re-signed later in the year.

Losing Parker will be a blow. And it’s almost guaranteed that Parker will not return. He told me after the team’s regular season finale at Miami that he still considers himself a starter and wants to go to a team that will give him that opportunity. It won’t happen in Pittsburgh, where Rashard Mendenhall has taken on that role.

The Steelers would like to have Parker return as a backup to Mendenhall, but realize that’s not likely and won’t make much of an effort to do so.

And they won’t go into next season with Mewelde Moore as the only backup to Mendenhall. That could mean that Isaac Redman or Frank Summers will get that opportunity. But the Steelers could also dip into the free agent market in an attempt to find a promising young back with low mileage as they did with Moore two years ago.

Complicating matter is the unsettled status of the collective bargaining agreement, which could take a number of unrestricted free agents and make them restricted.

Among players who could interest the Steelers who would revert to restricted status include Leon Washington of the Jets, John Kuhn of the Packers and Mike Bell of the Saints.

Former Seattle fullback Justin Griffith could be a possibility as a more dangerous version of Davis and tight end/fullback David Johnson. The Steelers like Johnson’s blocking and feel he’ll improve greatly in that role in his second season, but he’s not much of an offensive threat.

While Summers will again get the opportunity to compliment Johnson, the 6-0, 230-pound Griffith, who turns 30 in June, is an accomplished receiver out of the backfield in addition to being a capable – though not great – lead blocker. Griffith has 141 career receptions for 989 yards and 12 touchdowns.

At quarterback, the Steelers could bring Batch back for at least one more season. He’s well-liked in the locker room and helps mentor both Roethlisberger and Dixon.

The problem is that Dixon’s contract is up at the end of the 2010 season - though he will be an exclusive rights free agent, meaning the Steelers will be able to keep him. But we don’t know at this point what changes a new collective bargaining agreement will bring.

The Steelers may want to look for a little more long-term stability.

Though the team will likely sign at least one rookie free agent following the draft, a veteran such as Patrick Ramsey or Brian St. Pierre could be brought in to serve as a more long-term solution as a third quarterback.

Finally, the team expects Sweed to be back for a critical third season now that the “personal issues” he dealt with at the end of last season are behind him.

I know that many people are down on Sweed, but keep in mind that the third season is often a big one for wide receivers, particularly big ones who got by on their athletic talent and size in college.

Witness Sidney Rice’s explosion this season with the Vikings. Yes, Rice benefited from the addition of Brett Favre, but he was a player who struggled catching the ball in his first two seasons, hauling in just 46 passes in his first two seasons. People considered the former second-round pick a bust.

He caught 83 passes for more than 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns this season. I’m not suggesting that Sweed will catch 80 passes in 2010, but he will be given every chance to prove that he’s not a competent NFL wide receiver.

With Sweed, Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace and youngster Tyler Grisham returning, it’s unlikely the Steelers will sign a veteran wideout off the free agent market.