Time is now for Steelers' Clark
Published on 02-16-2010
By John Harris, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
You're Ryan Clark, starting free safety with the Steelers the last four seasons. This is your story.
You're an unrestricted free agent who wants to finish your career in Pittsburgh. Of course you do.
Joining a new team would mean uprooting your family and learning yet another system — your fourth in nine years.
You won a Super Bowl with the Steelers. But so did former free safety Chris Hope, who said all the right things about wanting to finish his career with the Steelers but left for more money with the Tennessee Titans.
You really have to hope the Steelers don't have someone in mind to replace you the way they knew how to replace Hope.
Remember who that was? You, of course.
You hope the Steelers aren't stuck on Ryan Mundy, who is working out at West Virginia with his college coach, Bill Stewart. You hope the Steelers prefer your experience and understanding of the defense to Mundy's relative youth and lack of prime-time experience.
You hope the Steelers' brass values your friendship with fellow starting safety Troy Polamalu.
You hope the Steelers are fixated on drafting nose tackles, linebackers, offensive linemen and cornerbacks. But not safeties.
You hope that USC safety Taylor Mays is off the board when the Steelers select at No. 18 in the first round. You hope the Steelers' brass continues to have selective amnesia if safeties Morgan Burnett of Georgia Tech and Myron Rolle of Florida State are available in later rounds.
Spending a high draft pick on a safety would make it difficult for the Steelers to bring you back.
Polamalu earned $6.495 million last season. The transition tag for the position is a little over $6 million, which is what it would take for the Steelers to retain you if they don't re-sign you to a long-term deal.
The chances of that happening are remote, no matter what your agent thinks.
''We can all conjecture they're not going to pay two safeties a lot of money. Well, why wouldn't you?'' your agent, Joel Turner asks. ''You pay two defensive linemen a lot of money. You pay two linebackers a lot of money. You can only afford to have one safety? You're not paying two free safeties. You're paying a strong safety and a free safety. You need one of each for the defense to work well.
''We're not asking for a fortune. We're just asking for a fair deal. If they're not fair, I'll be shocked.''
If the Steelers re-sign Clark and nose tackle Casey Hampton, I'll be shocked. Tagging both players for next season would run in excess of $13 million.
Good luck with that happening.
Remember, the Steelers could have re-signed Clark a year ago after winning Super Bowl XLIII. Instead, they re-signed tight end Heath Miller and defensive end Brett Keisel to long-term deals.
Still, the Steelers' loss could result in Clark's financial gain.
If Clark can wrap his mind around the idea of wearing a different uniform next season, the idea of 31 other potential employers in the NFL, it could ease the sting of not returning to the Steelers.
After all, a paycheck is a paycheck.
The NFL is all about timing, so this is a great time to be a free safety with free agency only a week away.
New Orleans likely will franchise Darren Sharper, taking the best free safety off the market and putting more potential free-agent dollars in Clark's pocket.
Last year, safeties Gibril Wilson (five years, $27.5 million) and Yeremiah Bell (four years, $20 million) were the big winners in free agency.
It's Clark's turn to cash in.
''If that's the money those guys are making, then Ryan's worth more,'' Turner says of Wilson and Bell. ''Ryan is the best free safety available in unrestricted free agency. There are some guys who are younger, but Ryan's it.''
Sure, Clark wants to finish what he started with the Steelers. Maybe he'll have the opportunity to do just that.
More likely, Clark will move on to another team, and the Steelers will repeat their familiar game plan of replacing a key starter with a younger, less expensive version.
It is a cold, calculating business model with little thought given to sentimentality, but it's what works for the Steelers.
Clark can console himself with fond memories and a larger paycheck.