Harris: Steelers' free agents as good as gone
By John Harris, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Leave it to always-blunt veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton to say what the Steelers won't about the team's offseason plans to re-sign some of their unrestricted free agents.
During an interview with the Tribune-Review last week, Hampton said he wants to finish his career with the team that drafted him in 2001. He also said the Steelers passed up the opportunity to re-sign him last offseason, so why should he turn cartwheels (picture that visual, if you will) for the chance to stay with the team that no longer considers him a priority?
"You didn't feel that strong about signing me before the season, so why is it such a big issue for you to try to keep me now?" Hampton responded.
Talk about telling it like it is.
Hampton's absolutely right. He doesn't figure in the Steelers' defensive plans like he did a couple of years ago.
He'll be 33 at the beginning of next season, and the team no longer considers him an every-down player. In fact, he no longer plays on passing downs.
Repeat after me: the Steelers will never pay full-time wages for a part-time player.
The Steelers would love to re-sign Hampton to a multiyear contract on the cheap, but don't count on that happening -- Hampton wants to test the market.
The Steelers could slap a franchise tag on Hampton and lock him up for another season, but that would be a mistake because an unhappy Hampton makes for an unproductive player.
In truth, the Steelers feel the same way about free safety Ryan Clark and running back Willie Parker.
If they really wanted to keep them, they wouldn't have allowed them to become free agents.
That's not how the Steelers operate. They realize it's cheaper to sign their own players before allowing them to test the market. That way, the Steelers are bidding against themselves.
Go down the list. The Steelers re-signed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with two years remaining on his contract, and they re-signed outside linebacker James Harrison, tight end Heath Miller and defensive ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel with one year remaining on their respective deals.
This year, the Steelers' offseason strategy will probably involve attempting to re-sign key players who are entering the final year of their contracts. Those players include outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, wide receiver Santonio Holmes and cornerback Ike Taylor.
Woodley, who played in his first Pro Bowl on Sunday night, led the Steelers with 13 1/2 sacks this season. Among active players, he's is tied with Dwight Freeney and Mike Vrabel for most postseason sacks with eight.
Holmes led the Steelers with 1,248 receiving yards and he was second on the team with 79 receptions.
Taylor is the team's most experienced starting cornerback. He has never missed a game in seven seasons because of injury.
The longer the Steelers wait to re-sign these players, the more their price tag will go up and the harder it will be for the team to keep them.
That's why it would seem to make more sense for the Steelers to prioritize re-signing players entering the final year of their contracts, instead of bringing back Hampton and Clark when they didn't lock them up a year earlier.
It isn't like the Steelers to have second thoughts about re-signing their unrestricted free agents. I'm going to assume that a decision has already been made about Hampton and Clark not coming back to the team.
Looking at the big picture, director of football operations Kevin Colbert is fond of saying there are two ways for the Steelers to build their roster.
One way is re-signing their key veterans. The other way is through the NFL Draft.
The 2010 draft is deep in talent at defensive tackle and safety -- deeper than it has been in years -- and it just so happens those are the positions where Hampton and Clark play.
In other words, the Steelers don't have to spend high draft picks on potential replacements for Hampton and Clark -- and they can save money in the process.
They can take a player in the second or third round who might normally be available in the first round.
Meanwhile, they can permit loyal veterans such as Hampton and Clark to sign a long-term deal with another team in a show of good faith while kicking off the team's inevitable rebuilding plan.