The Steelers have a ton of players who will become unrestricted and restricted free agents by March 12. According to the team’s website, there will be 18 unrestricted and six restricted.
Here is the list from Steelers.com:
Unrestricted – Will Allen, Charlie Batch, Plaxico Burress, Larry Foote, Ramon Foster, Casey Hampton, Brandon Johnson, David Johnson, Byron Leftwich, Doug Legursky, Justin King, Keenan Lewis, Rashard Mendenhall, Ryan Mundy, Leonard Pope, Max Starks, Mike Wallace, Greg Warren.
Restricted – Jonathan Dwyer, Jeremy Kapinos, Steve McLendon, Isaac Redman, Stevenson Sylvester, Emmanuel Sanders.
Before we get into the discussion, you may note that two players are on the list who do not appear either on their roster or their injured reserve list. Both David Johnson and Jeremy Kapinos were waived injured this year but reverted back to the team when no one claimed them. Johnson has been rehabbing at the team’s facility but I have not noticed Kapinos there.
Let’s look at the unrestricted free agents who are starters. They would include Keenan Lewis, Mike Wallace, Max Starks, Rashard Mendenhall, Larry Foote, and Casey Hampton.
Who do you try to sign, who do you make a priority, who do you allow to go into free agency and sign afterward, who do you pass on?
The Steelers have taken different strategies toward free agents. They usually sign their priorities a year before they can become free agents, so those players never hit free agency. Among them: Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Ike Taylor and many more.
The two priorities in this group, the two young players who they want to stay are Wallace and Lewis. Wallace already has turned down their best offers last year and those offers aren’t likely to grow. Lewis was never offered a multiple year contract because he was not yet a starter.
They would like both of them back, but how much they are willing to pay them – or can pay them – because of their salary cap issues may prevent them from signing either. Teams who need a speed receiver will still covet Wallace despite his somewhat disappointing 2012 season. Those who need a cornerback will look at the play of Lewis and offer him a top deal.
The Steelers could put the franchise or transition tag on each. According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, the salary cap in 2013 will be around $121 million and the projected franchise number for wide receivers will be $10.357 million, the transition salary $8.716. The franchise money for cornerbacks will be $10.668 million and the transition salary $8.939.
The franchise tag provides better protection because if it’s an “exclusive” tag, the player is bound to that team for that season. If it’s non-exclusive, the player would bring two first-round picks from another team if he signs elsewhere. The transition tag merely allows the team to match any offer the transition player might sign elsewhere as a free agent.
The Steelers have used both in the past. They used the transition tag on Max Starks, and then the franchise tag in 2009 and negotiated a long-term deal with him. They did the same with LaMarr Woodley, putting the franchise tage on him in 2011 and then negotiated a long-term deal with him that summer.
So putting the franchise or transition tag on, say Lewis, is not out of the question. I do not believe they would do it with Wallace, but they have not informed me of their plans so that remains a possibility.
Max Starks has to be the next priority, but the Steelers have not always treated him that way and they have three young tackles behind him. But if you are Ben Roethlisberger, would you prefer Starks at left tackle with Mike Adams, Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert fighting to start at right tackle with the other two as backups? Yes, but the salary cap is reality and so too are the three young tackles. One of them, probably Adams, will have to play left tackle.
The other free agents will take care of themselves and are not likely to be signed before March 12. Some will return, possibly at veteran minimum wage.
Ramon Foster will not get big money from the Steelers because they have Willie Colon under contract. But can they afford to let both Foster and Doug Legursky leave? Those two have been versatile linemen and in Foster’s case, a long-time starter at both guards who also can play tackle, as he did when he moved to right tackle in the season finale. If Legursky leaves, who will play center when either Maurkice Pouncey is injured or needs to move to guard because of someone else’s injury?
Will Allen is another versatile backup who proved his worth this season when he leaped over Ryan Mundy and did a good job filling in for the injured Troy Polamalu.
Any one of Foote, Burress, Hampton and either Batch or Leftwich could return for veteran minimums.
Mendenhall is an interesting case. By walking out on the team for one game, he turned off many in the locker room. He remains the team’s most talented back. Their interest in him will be telling. Without him, they need another back and two of them are on the restricted list, Dwyer and Redman. Both should be tendered with the idea that no other team will throw big money at them to move. They also must tender McLendon and Sanders and, if they don’t keep Foote, Sylvester.
Keep in mind the salary cap. They can’t keep them all, they might be able to only keep a handful. It promises to be another painful offseason for them.
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