Unrestricted free agency is a bonanza for fans. With speculation and rumors flying every day up to and through the period in which players can sign with new teams, it offers excitement and hope to fans of all teams.
The Steelers don't really buy into that. Literally and figuratively. It's not an organization that will spend much on other team's players, but they do make it a point to re-sign their own guys.
In that way, the Steelers' free agency period is usually conducted before unrestricted free agents are allowed to sign with other teams. Their efforts are put into re-signing their own players, and this year won't be any different.
Unrestricted Free Agency
The Steelers aren't particularly active in the free agency market even when they do have some cap space. It's even less likely they'll dip into it any deeper than a veteran with a minimum asking price.
It's more likely they'll save whatever cap room they create through all these moves to sign injury replacements in camp and during the season.
There are rare exceptions where the team will bring in a player to vie for a starting position - past examples of this are FS Ryan Clark, ILB James Farrior and C Jeff Hartings. The Steelers typically bring in veteran free agents to bolster the depth of a position, a la DE Nick Eason, WR Jerricho Cotchery and QB Byron Leftwich.
They will, however, sign a few of their own players who are currently scheduled to hit the free agency market.
Teams are free to sign unrestricted free agents as of March 13, and the Steelers will say goodbye to a few more players, including the ones they've already parted ways with - NT Chris Hoke, CB Bryant McFadden and WR Arnaz Battle.
QBs Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon are all currently unsigned for the 2012 season. Leftwich is one the Steelers will agonize over. He's reportedly very interested in staying with Pittsburgh long-term, but Batch's spot-start and subsequent quality play in that Week 16 game could make it tough for Leftwich to ask for more than the veteran minimum. Keeping a veteran quarterback around and drafting a future second-string passer behind Ben Roethlisberger is a logical option. Signing both Batch and Leftwich isn't out of the realm of possibility, either. Dixon will not be with the Steelers in 2012.
If re-signed, UFA Mewelde Moore would be in a dog fight to make the roster out of training camp, but with Rashard Mendenhall likely to start the season on the Physically-Unable-to-Perform (PUP) List, he may be offered a veteran minimum contract to compete with Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay and 2011 camp favorite Baron Batch for the two running back spots behind Mendenhall and Isaac Redman.
The wide receiver position also looks to be for some difficult decisions. WR Hines Ward has already said he's agreeable to a paycut, which would be the only way he'd be in Pittsburgh in 2012. Giving Ward his outright release
won't likely save the Steelers much, (Steelers would save $3.39 million against the cap in 2012 by releasing Ward) considering that would leave them with just three receivers on the roster.
Jerricho Cotchery, on the other hand, is in a tough spot. With the emergence of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, and productive - if not outstanding - play from Emmanuel Sanders when healthy, Cotchery falls closer to the "luxury, but not necessity" bucket. He performed well in the opportunities he was given, and could garner a larger offer than a veteran minimum deal the Steelers seem poised to make. On the other hand, it's very likely this is Ward's final season in Pittsburgh, depending on cap projections for the 2013 season, the Steelers could offer Cotchery a two-year deal with the bulk of the money coming in 2013 and beyond.
The Steelers traditionally have kept veteran receivers on the roster, and even with the high level of talent they have at that position, they're still going to want an eight or nine-year guy there to help with the younger players.
This is a sneaky favorite position for a high draft pick as well.
While there is only one top-10 type of receiver in this draft (Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State), There are four maybe even five who figure to be strong picks between 19-35. With a few positions of need, but good overall team depth, the Steelers may think about seeing what they can get by trading down a bit from 24 and getting one of those receivers - many of whom have size that the current Steelers receivers lack (6-foot-4 Alshon Jeffery, 6-foot-3 Michael Floyd and 6-foot-2 Mohamad Sanu come to mind).
OL Trai Essex was signed due to injuries last season, and eventually played significant minutes in a game due to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's decision to bench RT Marcus Gilbert. Instead, they started Jonathan Scott, while C Maurkice Pouncey was already out with an ankle injury. C Doug Legursky went down early in the game, forcing Essex to play center.
Essex can play all five offensive linemen positions, and with a cheap price tag, he'll be the most likely of the Steelers free agents to be re-signed. The question is when they'll do it. It's highly unlikely he'll sign anywhere else, meaning the Steelers can go through the draft and based on how that plays out, make a decision on whether to bring Essex back.
It's much of the same for OT Max Starks. He was essentially paid twice by the Steelers last year, once when they cut him in training camp and once when they re-signed him after Week 4. Starks was in a position to be able to get a longer-term deal either with the Steelers or elsewhere, but a torn ACL in the playoffs will push Starks probably into the same position he was in last year.
Conditioning concerns are a major factor with him, so the team will take a wait-and-see approach on his rehabilitation.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
RB Isaac Redman will enter training camp as the primary running back in new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system. While Mendenhall rehabs, Redman will take the bulk of the carries. He's currently not under contract, but he cannot negotiate with any other team. The Steelers will sign him to a one-year deal, likely for the three-year player minimum, simply because they do not have to give him any more than that.
NT Steve McLendon is in the same boat, and he, also, will enter camp as the starter because of injury. With Hoke's retirement and Casey Hampton's torn ACL, the Steelers are in perilous need of depth at this position, something they're likely to address early in the draft. If the Steelers dip into free agents outside their own, this is the most likely position they'll target.