As I mentioned in previous notes last week, the Steelers do not have an inordinate amount of tough decisions to make this offseason with their free agents . Furthermore, given our limited cap space to work with, the 2007 Steelers should look remarkably similar to the team that feebly tried to defend their World Championship in 2006.
On the surface this sounds scary right? The same group (a year older mind you) that struggled just to get to .500? Should we really be excited about that? Yes, we should, for lots of reasons. The most obvious reason is that the vast majority of the 2006 squad were participants in the Steelers' Super Bowl run the year before. Furthermore, athletes in all of the major sports tend to perform at a higher clip during contract years. This phenomenon is less pronounced than it is in baseball and basketball where all money is guaranteed and players can coast knowing that there's nothing a team can do if they underperform. If you try to coast in the NFL, odds are you either get cut or get your head taken off on the field due to a lack of intensity. Still, let's face it. There will be a number of playmakers on both sides of the ball whose performances in 2007 will earn them plenty of dough in their next contract, whether it's with the Steelers or not.
Some of the notables who will be FAs at the end of the 2007 season:
Troy Polamalu (Restricted Free Agent)
Aaron Smith (Unrestricted Free Agemt)
Joey Porter (URFA)
Clark Haggans (URFA)
James Farrior (URFA)
Alan Faneca (URFA)
Chukky Okobi (URFA)
Kendall Simmons (RFA)
Trai Essex (RFA)
Chris Kemoeatu (RFA)
Any astute follower of the NFL is aware that the offensive line plays a significant role in the success of an offense. For years, us Steeler fans have been spoiled by consistent play up front. Last year, we were not treated to such consistency and the result was a plethora of turnovers, and a running game that struggled to get in gear away from Heinz Field. With veteran center Jeff Hartings lost to retirement, and Alan Faneca coming off his most disappointing season since he was a rookie, there's certainly no guarantee that we will return to prominence this year.
But, let's not forget that this group was downright dominant at times last year. I'm thinking of the Kansas City game and the second Cleveland game in particular, when absolutely everything seemed to click on offense due to our control of the line of scrimmage. In other words, this group can be an elite unit, even without Hartings. It's just a matter of doing it on a weekly basis.
It's going to be interesting to see what the Rooneys do prior to training camp. It has been standard protocol in the Steel City for players to receive extensions before the start of the final year of their contract. Since there will be so many Steelers available for FA after the 2007 season, the front office will have many more tough decisions to make than they did last offseason. Let's not forget that the Rooneys don't just award extensions though, even to star players who seemingly deserve the loyalty of the franchise. Players like Polamalu, despite his less-than-stellar year, most likely will receive an extension, but guys like Porter, Farrior, Haggans, and Aaron Smith are probably sleeping a little less soundly. All of the above had so-so years, and there's the possibility that Tomlin might be interested in purging much of the defensive roster in order to implement a 4-3 scheme.
So, where does that leave us. In my mind, that means that 2007 could be the final hurrah for many of the Steelers we have cheered for the past several years. With so little cap space to make a big splash in free agency this year, most of the group that brought the Lombardi Trophy home to Pittsburgh in 2005 should get to make one final run together before significant changes are made prior to 2008. Hell, even if they don't want to play for each other, the franchise, and the city of Pittsburgh, they'll at least want to play for themselves and their pocket books.
I think we may be in for a special year.