His No. 99 is not adorned to the chest and back of any other player.
It could be a coincidence. No one may have wanted the No. 99. Perhaps the locker has issues with mold or something else rendering it uninhabitable.
Such notions are about as realistic as prediction of Tyrod Taylor being named NFL MVP this season.
Salary cap this, draft picks that, there are specific and tangible reasons why the Steelers haven't issued Keisel's number or had a new player occupy his locker. They not only have failed to close the door on Keisel's 11 year career, it's as if they expect the longtime starting right side defensive end to come back for season No. 12.
Keisel, a player with 29 career sacks in 144 career games, will turn 36 years of age two days before the Steelers take on the Carolina Panthers in Week 3. He's been a part of the Steelers' roster every year since his 24th birthday in 2002. Just to put that in perspective, Keisel was a rookie observing a season-saving comeback led by Tommy Maddox, who, in relief of Kordell Stewart, led Pittsburgh past Cleveland in overtime.
Clearly, the Steelers are valuing the presence of a veteran leader in the defensive ends meetings. They may even save money in doing it.
The Minimum Salary Benefit (MSB), a clause added to the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, means the Steelers could, potentially, sign Keisel to a one-year contract for the veteran minimum amount for his level of tenure ($955,000) along with a $65,000 signing bonus, and have it count as $570,000 against the 2014 salary cap.
All players with at least 4 credited seasons are eligible for the MSB. However, to qualify for MSB treatment your contract has to meet specific criteria, explained as follows:
1. The contract must only be 1 year in length
2. Additional compensation can not exceed $65,000 in 2013 (this number rises by $15,000 every 3 years, with the next increase set for 2015), and that includes bonuses from other teams
3. P5 guarantees can not exceed the P5 salary of a 2nd year player, which is $555,000 in 2013
So signing Keisel would be getting 12 years of internal experience at the cap price of a player with two years of experience. Perhaps the team is saving even more money by not bothering to rip the name plate of the No. 99 home black and road white jerseys it has on hand.
Makes perfect sense. When it comes to the end of the roster, rarely will a team sign a veteran player over a cheap player short on tenure. This levels the playing field a bit.
Signing Keisel also hedges the team's offseason bets perceived utility defensive lineman Cam Thomas and second round pick Stephon Tuitt can lock down the position on their own. The Steelers are used to the paradigm of experience at that right defensive end position. Thomas and Tuitt have exactly zero career snaps in Dick LeBeau's defense. This isn't to suggest they're poor players, but this is still a small price to pay for something no one else on the roster is able to provide.
If Thomas provides versatility, and Tuitt provides strength and upside, Keisel can provide experience and leadership at a cap price on the same level as Brian Arnfelt. That's a pretty solid bargain for a team transitioning two starting defensive ends from as recently as Week 4 of the 2013 season. Ziggy Hood was replaced by Cameron Heyward in the early goings of last year, and has since signed a free agent deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Keisel's return isn't a sure thing, but adding in the MSB clause, his open locker and his unassigned jersey number, there's certainly smoke even if we can't see the flames. The Steelers have around $6 million in cap space, and that number wouldn't go down much by signing Keisel to a one-year contract.
It also makes sense as to why neither the team nor Keisel are beating down the other's respective door to get a deal done. Keisel needs training camp about as much as he needs a suit and tie to go to practice, and doesn't necessarily want to take home the league minimum. Waiting for a bit into training camp to see if any injuries occur, thus increasing his demand on the open market, is a wise idea. For the Steelers, Tuitt may be a savant, capable of locking down the team's starting position from the first snap of the season through his own 12-year career.
Both seem like valid reasons for both sides to take a wait-and-see approach.
It'd be weird if they didn't. The last time Keisel was not contributing to a Steelers season-opener in some way (2001), Heinz Field was opening up.