And it begins.
Today, teams may officially begin negotiating with the agents of players who will be free agents as of 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, March 11. Or, as the league puts it:
Clubs are permitted to contact, and enter into contract negotiations with, the certified agents of players who will become unrestricted free agents upon the expiration of their 2013 player contracts at 4 p.m. ET on March 11. However, a contract cannot be executed with a new club until 4 p.m. ET on March 11.
Here are the key points regarding the Steelers:
Emmanuel Sanders is not expected to return
Some say that's good, some say that's bad. What he really is right now is a compensatory pick in 2015. There is a shrinking middle class in the NFL and players who seem, statistically, destined for that middle level salary at his respective position are in a tough spot. How much Sanders will really be worth on the open market is a matter of some conjecture.
The Steelers have one running back on their roster
Outside of Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh has basically nothing by way of halfbacks. While they won't sign a running back at 4:01 p.m. ET March 11, at some point before minicamp starts, they're likely to add a few of them - draft, free agency, random guy they met in line at Chipotle.
Deals are still coming
Expect movement on Jason Worilds' contract extension and Ike Taylor's contract restructuring today or Sunday. The team is somewhat deadlocked with its salary cap (after the reported restructure of Antonio Brown's deal, the Steelers are roughly $3 million under the salary cap. Getting Taylor down to $2 million for this season would bump that figure to around $8 million, and a reasonable market-based deal with Worilds (who, keep in mind, no longer has any more leverage for a long-term deal than he would have had he not accepted his transition tag), adding in the $9.75 million he's already guaranteed, a liberal estimate of his cap hit can be figured at $4 million. That would give the Steelers $13 million in space.
Lots of free agents available
The Steelers won't aim to make the top of the market splash, but they will be active in free agency. Expect them to kick the tires on a few veteran defensive ends (Houston's Antonio Smith, perhaps), maybe still shop for a safety - although Will Allen's signing probably mitigates the need to find one. They're still going to be competitive in retaining their own free agents as well. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Fernando Velasco brought back, and signing Jerricho Cotchery to a two or three year deal still has to be a priority.