Onward with our breakdown of what the future might hold for the various Pittsburgh Steelers players whose contracts expired after the 2010 season. Let's continue with a versatile player who fell out of the good graces of Steeler Nation throughout the 2010 season -- reserve linebacker and special teams stalwart, Keyaron Fox.
2010 Salary: ~$800,000
The back story: Keyaron Fox was signed to a three-year deal in the spring of 2008 to provide depth to the linebacker corps and bolster the team's special teams prowess. The signing was very emblematic of how the Steelers approach free agency. That is, don't overpay for big name guys past their physical primes, and instead find underutilized guys coming off their rookie contract that are inexpensive and versatile. Fox has proven to be well worth the investment this past three years. James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons have hoarded the playing time at inside linebacker, but Fox has been productive during his limited snaps on defense. His 82-yard interception return of Brett Favre helped seal an early-season win against the Vikings in 2009, and in each of his three seasons in Pittsburgh, he's recovered at least one fumble.
Fox's primary responsibilities though came as the captain of the special teams last season. Unfortunately, his costly penalties overshadowed his otherwise stout play in the third phase of the game. Fox was penalized seven times on ST plays, three of which came during the team's playoff run to the Super Bowl. I don't need to remind you about the last of his infractions -- a costly personal foul penalty that pushed Ben Roethlisberger and the offense back on the game's final, unsuccessful drive.
Prior to this past season, Fox had shown no history really of being a hothead, so it came as somewhat of a surprise to see him lose his cool and rack up the undisciplined penalties. Did he show his true colors last year or was his behavior more of an outlier that he can easily get control over in the future? I'm inclined to the think the later, though we may not get to find out how he adjusts with the Steelers.
What I'd do: Most people believe Fox has played his final snaps in the black and gold. I'm not one of them. If you look at the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker, it doesn't make much sense to let Fox go. James Farrior will be 35 during the '11 season, and though Potsie had a very nice bounce-back season a year ago, it would be foolish to not have a solid, proven insurance option behind him in the event that he finally hits the wall physically. Lawrence Timmons meanwhile emerged as one of the game's elite 'backers, but I think the Steelers coaching staff would be wise to spell him a bit more frequently in future years. Timmons was absolutely beastly to begin the year, then faded just a tad down the stretch. A capable, veteran player like Fox to relieve both Timmons and Farrior would be a nice asset to have.
And what is there behind those three on the depth chart at the moment? Stevenson Sylvester and Larry Foote are about it. We're all rightfully excited about what he might be able to do with more playing time, but there are zero guarantees that he'd be able to live up to the extremely high standards required of Dick LeBeau's ILBs. Foote meanwhile will be playing the second year of his three-year $9.3 million dollar deal. Would you rather try to re-sign Fox for around $1-$1.5 million a year for the next two or three seasons, or pay Foote millions to be a reserve behind Farrior and Timmons? It's a tough dilemma, but ultimately, if you're looking to save money, the wise move is to first try to re-sign Fox, then if futile, go with Foote.
So, I personally would try to re-sign Fox to a reasonable deal that ensures the Steelers have competent, proven depth at ILB for the next two seasons while Farrior finishes his career and Sylvester potentially develops into a guy LeBeau can trust. I think the following terms are fair for both parties -- three years, $3.75 million, $750k signing bonus, roster + incentive bonuses were he to see the field regularly on defense.