A few thoughts from me about Casey Hampton and what may or may not happen with his future in Pittsburgh. Firstly, as always, this is conjecture purely from me. I'm just a fan trying to think things through as logically as I can, with no real substantive information whatsoever to speak of guiding me.
Anyway, the common consensus seems to be that the Steelers will slap the franchise tag on nose tackle Casey Hampton this offseason. If so, the Steelers would be the beneficiaries of Hampton's services for one more year before he would become an unrestricted free agent once more at about this time in 2011. The Steelers would have to pay a premium to do so, namely pay him as one of the highest paid defensive tackles in football in what looks more and more likely to be an uncapped year.
So be it. Without Hampton in the fold next year, I don't think the Steelers would have a chance at winning a Super Bowl. He's certainly not the most important factor on the roster - that'd be Big Ben or Troy Polamalu. But still, I think the Steelers have a really nice two to three year window coming up when they should have a legitimate shot at capturing Lombardi Trophy number seven. Hines Ward will be winding down his career, Aaron Smith (should) still be playing at a high level, same with Polamalu and James Harrison. Meanwhile, Big Ben should really be hitting his prime, same with Woodley, Santonio, Timmons, Mendenhall and Heath Miller. And finally, young guys like Ziggy Hood and perhaps even W. Gay, J. Burnett and Keenan Lewis will be better equipped to make important contributions. To me, the time is now to keep the nucleus in tact for this next year at least and hopefully make a run at another championship before a number of stalwart pieces of the roster have to be replaced.
Finally, I'd argue that keeping Hampton around in 2010 with the 'franchise tag' would improve the chances of him signing a more reasonable 2-3 year deal the following offseason. Now, this may be a pipe dream because after all, at the end of the day, money talks and B.S. walks. But I just think that at 33 years of age next spring, Hampton might just say 'forget about starting fresh somewhere else at this stage of my career.' He would be getting a huge windfall in 2010 - not as much as he'd get by signing a longer term deal somewhere else with boatloads of guaranteed money. But I still think he could earn close to $22-$25 million in Pittsburgh this next three to four years. The question then might be, would that be enough in his mind. Who knows, but I do think the Steelers would have a better chance of him passing up a bit more money elsewhere if that decision was made next year rather than in the upcoming months.
I don't think Hampton is the out-of-shape over-the-hill player that some of you do. What I saw this year was a still very, very good rush defense despite A) Aaron Smith being out for much of the year...B) James Farrior not playing at nearly the same level as he has in years past...C) a suspect pass defense that softened up the Steelers commitment to stopping the run...and D) no Troy Polamalu cutting down backs like Ray Rice for 3-4 yard gains rather than big chunks of yardage.
To me, Casey Hampton was a huge part of that relative success. Throw in the fact that the Steelers might get more value out of him next year if they show more of a commitment to running the football on offense. Remember, the defense was out there much more than they've been in recent years because of A) their inability to get off the field on 3rd downs..but also because of B) the offense's feast or famine tendencies that resulted in either quick scores or quick punts. That took its toll on guys like Hampton.
Just some thoughts from me. We know that the Steelers have historically opted not to use the franchise tag on their free agents. It tends to upset guys, particularly those who have been a loyal, hard working part of the team for many years. Reports out of New England are already coming fast and furious about how Vincent Wilfork would be furious if he was franchised. I imagine Hampton might take similar offense. It's a business though and Hampton hasn't exactly had a 100% squeaky clean track record of exerting maximum effort 100% of the year to keep in shape. Anyway, the Steelers did use the transition and franchise tags on Max Stars this past two years, so I wouldn't rule it out as a possibility.
We'll find out what the organization is thinking on the subject soon enough, I suppose.