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 as we head into the eve of free agency, we’ll take a look at the defensive backs.
Steelers potential losses
William Gay, CB, restricted
Deshea Townsend, CB, unrestricted
Tyrone Carter, S, unrestricted
Ryan Clark, S, unrestricted
If there is any position that will undergo major changes for the Steelers in 2010, it will be the defensive backs.
Few will argue that this was not a weak point for the team in 2009 and with four free agents - including three unrestricted free agents – it could see a great deal of turnover.
In his first season as a full-time starter, William Gay was exposed as a liability in pass coverage. Gay lacks deep speed and because of that, he must give more cushion. He also struggled at times with his tackling in 2009, eventually losing his starting job to Townsend.
But the Steelers will likely tender him and give him another shot at winning the starting job back in 2010.
Townsend, on the other hand, won’t be back unless he finds no takers in free agency. The 34-year-old still sees himself as starting material, even if the Steelers do not. They like what Townsend brings to the table, but durability questions will always be there. In fact, the team kept Keiwan Ratliff for most of the season because it was worried Townsend would break down again in 2009.
Veteran safety Tyrone Carter has also probably played his last game for the Steelers. A nice bit player, Carter’s lack of size and speed is exposed when he has to play regularly. The Steelers can do better with their backup safety position.
Clark, the team’s starting free safety, is also unrestricted and the team would love to bring him back, but won’t break the bank to do so. Though Clark is a heady player and a big hitter, he’s not adept at producing takeaways, something you’d like of your free safety. He does, however, have a nice rapport with Troy Polamalu and the two have an innate sense of where each will be. That cannot be overlooked.
If Townsend and Carter leave via free agency, the Steelers will likely be looking to sign at least one and possibly two veterans to throw into the mix with some of their younger players at those positions.
Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson is considered the top player available at that position, but the former top-10 draft pick’s production – 13 career interceptions, six of which came as a rookie – hasn’t matched what he’ll likely be asking for on the open market.
More affordable options would include New England’s Leigh Bodden, Seattle’s Ken Lucas and Detroit’s Anthony Henry.
At 28, Bodden is the youngest of that trio and is coming off a season in which he made 14 starts with the Patriots, picking off five passes. But three of those interceptions came in one game against Jets’ rookie Mark Sanchez. Still, his five picks were four more than the Steelers’ corners had in 2009.
Lucas, 31, could probably be had for a good deal less than Bodden and still has something left as he showed with the Seahawks in 2009, playing in all 16 games and making six starts. Lucas has 25 career interceptions, including one last season.
At 33, Henry is the oldest of this group of corners, but also has the best hands. The 6-1, 207-pounder saw action in 14 games in 2009 and like Lucas, made six starts. He recorded 46 tackles and two interceptions, giving him 31 in his career.
At safety, the Steelers could throw caution to the wind if they don’t feel negotiations with Clark will prove meaningful and make a run at New Orleans’ Darren Sharper.
Though 34, Sharper is one of the best ball hawks of all-time as evidenced by his 63 career interceptions. There is no doubt he could probably coax at least three more seasons out of himself. The Steelers also have a bargaining chip no other team does when it comes to negotiations with Sharper. He was a teammate of head coach Mike Tomlin at William & Mary and the two remain friends.
If the Steelers are looking for someone who would be a little cheaper but also add some experienced depth, they could go after another player with ties to Tomlin. Tampa Bay’s Will Allen is just 27 and owns 26 career starts at free safety for the Bucs, including 16 games in 2006 when Tomlin was his defensive backs coach. Allen was also first alternate as the NFC’s special teams Pro Bowl representative in 2009, something that would be a welcome addition for the Steelers.
Allen would be a nice replacement for Carter.