Quite frankly I dread this time of year. This time last year we saw the end for Chris Hoke, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward. As I write this it appears that James Harrison may lead the roll call of this year's departing veterans, with names like Mike Wallace, Casey Hampton, Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis possibly to follow. It is the nature of things of course in both a business and performance sense, but I am sufficiently sentimental that the promise of the new rarely rises to equal or surpass that proven benefits of the old, at least not yet. This Jim Wexell piece on Harrison gets my mood perfectly.
Steelers.com has provided a primer for following the progress of free agency which begins formally on Tuesday, March 12, but teams are permitted to begin negotiations with player agents as soon as midnight Saturday March 9th. Peter King provides his version of the top 50 free agents available. Once again the Steelers opt to not use the franchise tag.
The big story of the week so far is not of a loss but of a surprise return to fold. Though it was unexpected, the story was not unprecedented. A Steeler cornerback leaves via free agency to play in the desert for Pittsburgh West and then returns. In 2010 it was Bryant McFadden, this year it is William Gay. Gay's return was the source of both optimism and trepidation depending upon where your attention was focused.
If you were looking backward it all depended upon whether your memories were on the pre-Carnell Lake version of William Gay who most felt behaved like a sieve, or the 2011 version who confounded the negative expectations of much of Steeler Nation and served as Exhibit A in establishing the coaching credentials of Lake.
Looking forward the thinking split between fear and possibility. For some the interpretation of the move was that the team expected to not retain Keenan Lewis. Others saw it as being primarily a response to the need for depth in an era where high powered passing attacks demand that a competitive defense needs to be able to put at least three starter capable corners on the field at all times. The return of Gay puts the defensive secondary in the position to be one of the strongest units on the team regardless of the eventual fate of Lewis. (The financial arrangements of Gay's deal would seem to indicate that his role would be that of a nickle back, Cortez Allen being the likely replacement as starter if Lewis leaves.) If Lewis remains and the unit can stay relatively healthy the prospects under the tutelage of Lake would be exciting and could be one of the strongest of any era.
The news had been completely upbeat for about a week. Contract restructuring and a rise in the salary cap ceiling had brought the team into cap compliance, at least temporarily. No players had yet to be released. The return of Gay was a move that strengthened the team competitively and was heartwarming as well. Until Thursday evening news reports indicated that the two sides were talking and there was optimism that a deal could be worked that would allow the team to retain the services of James Harrison. However, as I write this both local and national media report that the sides have reached an impasse and that Harrison is likely to be released. The loss of Harrison would be a blow and the most significant at that position since Joey Porter left six years ago.
This is likely to be the last time I write anything related to Wallace as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Indications from the national media is that Wallace will be one of, if not the most sought after free agent when negotiations begin on Saturday and signings are permitted beginning Tuesday. The Miami Dolphins appear to be the team most interested in Wallace at present.
According to at least one report the Steelers left guard will continue to be part of the team going forward. Colon's agent has said that the team has no plans to request an alteration to his contract or ask for a pay cut. This has led to the raising of the provocative question as to whether Colon has more value to the team than Harrison.
The running backs
Of all the position groups on the team this is the one that seems to be in the greatest flux with the least amount of attractive alternatives available. Here is an analysis of some options in the upcoming draft
Steelers all time defensive free agents
Last week we pointed out that though they don't immerse themselves to the extent of a number of other teams, the Steelers have a productive history of supplementing their roster with productive free agents. Hombre de Acero's listing of the all time Steelers offensive free agents was shared. If you missed it you'll find it here. This week Hombre does the defensive side of the ball. Here to is NFL.com's list of the top free agent signings overall.
Keenan Lewis and Pittsburgh North
Since Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm set up camp in Arizona seven years ago Steeler Nation has taken to referring to the Cardinals as Pittsburgh West. Well, the case may be made for a new satellite franchise that would be located in (hold on now) Cleveland. As you know the new owner of the Browns was formerly part of the Pittsburgh ownership group. And Ray Horton, former secondary coach for the Steelers and former defensive coordinator for Pittsburgh West is now the defensive coordinator for Cleveland. Horton is interested in luring free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis to the Browns. Cleveland has plenty of cap space and could likely easily win a bidding war for Lewis' services. You see where this could be going. Its one thing to talk about the connection with a team that is on the other side of the continent that plays in the other conference, but another team in the same division and Cleveland at that. Talk about unleasing Hell. Then throw in the bad blood both teams have with the Ravens and you have a recipe for something that would simply be godawful, but maybe wonderful as well. Just the reference of Pittsburgh North would drive Cleveland fans crazy.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been front and center for the past two weeks since agreeing to restructure his contract, and providing some context to the current state of the team. Last week he addressed the question of the state of the Steelers locker room. This week he acknowledged that his shoulder injury definitely had an adverse effect on his throwing mechanics at the end of the season.
The bigger picture
This week has been the lull before what is likely to be a big storm of free agent happenings that will begin to unfold over the next seven days. A few stories have appeared on these pages that have taken a broader or more historical perspective. PaVaSteeler drew some parallels between the NFL draft and American society. Anthony Defeo takes on fan criticism of players from a historical perspective. I take on the issue of player dissension by looking at some past Steelers teams that wrestled with similar concerns. And Manchurian does a tribute to Chuck Noll.
The Steelers broadcaster and former offensive lineman provides this week's take on the ongoing conversation on player safety and head injuries.
The NFL Commissioner usually elicits strong feelings from all corners. This in depth profile is worth the read.
The fate of the Ravens free agent quarterback would have major implications for his team and the balance of power in the AFC North. He signed a big deal this week.
The Steelers are a finalist for winning the Shorty Award which recognizes how well organizations utilize social media.