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fordfixer
02-26-2009, 01:10 AM
Steelers tread cautiously into free agency

By Scott Brown, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, February 26, 2009

http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsbu ... 13461.html (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/steelers/s_613461.html)

The free-agent signing period starts at 12:01 a.m. Friday, but don't expect Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert to be working the phones after midnight.

The Steelers have a history of wading, not jumping, into free agency. And their top priority may be signing outside linebacker James Harrison, who is entering the final year of his contract, to a long-term deal.

The uncertain labor situation has complicated talks between the Steelers and Harrison's agent, Bill Parise, and the latter said yesterday that a deal between the two sides is not imminent.

"We're sharing some numbers. We're not real close on those numbers," Parise said, adding that his talks with the Steelers have been both cordial and productive. "I don't want to paint the picture that we're not trying to get this done quickly, because we are."

The biggest hurdle to getting a deal done for Harrison, the NFL's reigning defensive player of the year, is the constraint brought about by the lack of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the owners and players' union.

The owners voided the final two years of the CBA, which was to run through 2012, last year.

The 2010 season will be an uncapped salaries year unless the owners and union come to an agreement on a new deal. And the possibility of such a scenario unfolding conjures up images of frenzied spending sprees.

The owners opting out of the CBA, however, triggered constraints for contracts that are signed this year. The most notable among them is the rule that prohibits players' salaries from rising more than 30 percent a year from their base salary for the 2009 season.

That makes it exceedingly more difficult for the Steelers and other teams to massage the salary cap. The reason: they cannot offer deals that have wildly fluctuating base salaries, a device that teams have used to manage the salary cap, because of the new 30 percent stipulation.

Also, no deals signed this year can go beyond five years.

That prevents teams from giving players longer contracts, such as the eight-year deal Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger signed last March, to spread out the money that is counted against the salary cap.

"No one's ever gone through this," Parise said. "We're all being challenged by it. I don't know that I've ever put this much time and energy into a deal."

The Steelers are not believed to have much room under the salary cap, which rises from $118 million to $123 million, and they have already signed left tackle Max Starks to a one-year, $8.451 million contract.

The Steelers and Starks are working toward a long-term deal which would lower the cap hit they take for the fifth-year veteran next season. Also, more than $6 million is expected to come off the books with left tackle Marvel Smith's almost certain departure.

The Steelers are not expected to release veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote to create more cap room, even though he is set to make close to $3 million this season and former first-round pick Lawrence Timmons is waiting in the wings.

The constraints the Steelers are working under on several fronts make it likely that cornerback Bryant McFadden, guard Chris Kemoeatu and wide receiver Nate Washington will all sign elsewhere if they become unrestricted free agents.

Harrison, who made $1.2 million in base salary last season plus another $600,000 in incentives, looms as the next Steelers player to strike a big payday.

Colbert said last week at the NFL scouting combine that "from a selfish standpoint, we want him to finish his career here. From his standpoint, he's earned that, so you want to take care of him."

Parise said he does not doubt that will happen no matter how difficult the new rules make negotiations.

"I remain optimistic that this is going to get done sooner rather than later," he said.