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The Steelers may never be major players in free agency

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The Steelers never seem to have much space under the cap to make a splash in free agency. And this year, being up against it again, don't expect general manager Kevin Colbert to be able to lure any top-tier free agents to Pittsburgh.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham probably isn't long for Cincinnati, as Neal Coolong wrote the other day. Cincinnati may let the door at Paul Brown Stadium hit the pending free agent in the Asomugha.

Hey, maybe the Steelers will take a run at Gresham. Sounds kind of risky, but since they're right up against the cap, as it appears Pittsburgh will be again this offseason, with one of the worst cap situations in the NFL, middling free agents are likely the only players available at the dollars the Steelers have to spend.

The Steelers have the second-highest amount of dead-money in the NFL, which is a product of player cuts, such as LaMarr Woodley last season. It's also a product of continuously extending contracts, not only to sign future mega-stars such as Antonio Brown, but just as a means to buy some cap relief. That was the case a year ago, when the Steelers extended the contracts of both Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But now - not so much.

Polamalu and Miller are both on the downside of their careers - particularly Polamalu. It just seems like the Steelers can never get out from under the constraints of their eagerness to keep the 2005-2010 Super Bowl train running. It's hard to blame them for that, but championship legends don't come cheap.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is due for an extension. A year ago, when negotiations pretty much went nowhere before the start of the season, the general attitude was: "Hey, there's still time."

Time is running out, and Roethlisberger is entering the final year of his contract and coming off the finest season of his career. Yes, he'll be 33 by the start of next season, but Tom Brady, at 37, just won the Super Bowl. A year ago, Peyton Manning, at 37, had just about the best regular season in the history of the quarterback position, and he also played in the Super Bowl.

With colleagues such as Joe Flacco making roughly $20 million a year, Roethlisberger is going to want at least that much, regardless of his age.

The Steelers offense has a pretty decent line now and a bunch of weapons, most of whom are going to want salary increases in the coming years.

And what about the defense? That's kind of a mess right now, with Ryan Shazier, last year's first round pick, still an unknown due to injuries in his rookie year; and Jarvis Jones, 2013's first round pick, still a bit of an unknown, due to injuries and spotty play.

What about the secondary? Everyone knows about the problems there.

Will we see the day when Pittsburgh must make a choice between signing a suddenly hot-commodity such as Martavis Bryant or parting ways with old, reliable No. 84, who really won't be that old in a few years when Bryant's rookie contract is up?

The Steelers probably will have to make that choice, because this whole being up against the cap thing just doesn't seem to end.

And those situations lead to signing people with baggage like Blount and actually being excited about it. It makes a player like safety Mike Mitchell, coming off one solid year, the most-prized free agent acquisition in recent memory..

Arthur Moats and Brice McCain, two free agent signings expected to provide depth, actually gave the team more bang for the buck, and each acted as life-savors for the defense, when injuries and sub-par performances threatened to drown the unit in a sea of points and big plays.

But like Mewelde Moore and Will Allen, the Steelers, with their current situation of always being up against the cap, may be better off hunting for bargain-basement free agents, who don't necessarily move the excitement needle in March, but become valuable in October or November.

Many fans will spend the next month hoping for the Steelers to snag a top-tier free agent, before they end up settling for a second-tier guy, this year's version of Mike Mitchell.