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Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 Free Agents Analysis: Willie Colon

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Earlier today, I posted the list of Pittsburgh Steelers players that will be free agents for the 2011 season. We're of course assuming there will be free agency. It sure doesn't look like free agency will start in early March like it has since the passing of the historic 1993 Collective Bargaining Agreement. But it's safe to say that free agency -- in some shape or form -- will again be instituted in whatever new CBA is hammered out between the NFL owners and the NFLPA. Now, when free agency does again.

2010 Salary: $2,204,240


The back story: Willie Colon entered the NFL in 2006 as a 4th round project out of the University of Hofstra. Born in the Bronx, a rough and tumble urban environment where basketball reigns supreme, Colon was obviously a late bloomer in terms of his exposure to high level competition on the gridiron. The result was extreme struggles early on in his career with the Steelers. After starting two games in his rookie season, Colon was named the full time starter at right tackle in 2007. Even though Max Starks had starting experience on a Super Bowl winning team in '05, Colon got the nod. At the time (yes, I was writing back then), I wondered if the Steelers were decided to start Colon over Starks for financial reasons. Basically Starks' contract was coming up, and if he played an integral role on that '07 team at right tackle, he'd be pretty expensive to retain in free agency. Meanwhile the Steelers wouldn't really know what they had in Colon.

Anyway, Colon struggled in '07 and '08. So badly in fact that he became the poster boy for the offensive line's struggles. Most of the criticism was deserved, though folks were perhaps too unforgiving of the fact that he'd never in his life come close to facing the caliber of athletic talent that each NFL team has during his high school and collegiate days. In '09, Colon turned the corner. He wasn't perfect, but he improved dramatically, and by season's end was widely regarded as the team's best offensive lineman.

Unfortunately for Colon, sheer bad luck stood in the way of him signing an unrestricted free agent deal at about this time last year. Under the provisions of the last CBA, Colon's four years of service were no longer enough to qualify him for URFA status. Instead, Colon had to sign a one-year RFA deal last offseason that paid him a nice sum. But make no mistake about it: had Colon entered the league just one year earlier and qualified for URFA after the '09 season, he would have been able to find a suitor willing to offer a multi-year deal in the eight digits, with perhaps as much as $10-$15 million in guarantees.

The BTSC Consensus: Well, there wasn't exactly the same type of consensus amongst you all about what should be done with Colon moving forward. Some thought he should be re-signed; many others thoughts it was time to let him walk. However, the common them I kept reading was something along the lines of: 'let's see how he is injury-wise before offering up any sort of long-term deal.' Well, that's somewhat fair and understandable, but it's also flat-out ignoring the facts. Colon had been one of the asbolute most durable guys on the team and entire NFL from '07-'09. He made 48 consecutive starts in those three seasons, missing not even a single game. He also started all four of the Steelers postseason games during that stretch.

In fact, following the '07 season, Colon earned the top figure in the NFL’s "Performance-Based Pay" system that awards lower-salaried players for playing time. What's that you ask? Well, as part of the 2002 extension to the CBA, a pool of money was allocated for distribution to those players with minimum salaries who saw extensive playing time over the course of the year. Or said differently, guys that provided a huge return on investment to their clubs. Colon has been just that -- an amazing investment for the Steelers because of his durability.

Anyway, in my mind, there is no injury concern with Colon.  He suffered a freak injury during OTAs when no pads were even on. And the good news, if there is such a thing with an awful injury like that, is that Colon suffered it in June, meaning he'll have had at least 14+ months of recovery. There's a danger of reaggravating the injury if you rush back to action, but the timetable is more or less perfect for a compelte recovery for Colon in '11.

So, again, Colon is the product of extreme bad luck when it comes to free agency. He was denied a well-deserved windfall after the '09 season, and now he'll likely be denied once more because of a totally random freak injury that really shouldn't have any long-term implications on his ability to play at a high level. At 28 years of age, Colon's window for signing that big contract is running out. This is his time to get paid. If I were Colon and his agent, I'd flat out refuse anything short of 3-years, $14m, $1m signing bonus, another $3.0m guaranteed

What I'd Do: I think Colon is worth keeping, and I think he's worth keeping at roughly the figures I laid out above.

3-years, $14m, $3-4m guaranteed.

The Rooneys are savvy shrewd businessmen, but they're also unwaveringly fair. Colon has three things going for him. He's (1) provided a remarkable ROI to the organization...(2) been a product of unfortunate circumstances (CBA + freak injury) after proving that he'd gotten over his early growing pains and was ready to play at a high level consistently...(3) proven to be locker room gold and one of the team's more popular well-respected guys.