Tuesday, January 15, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers can use help everywhere and would consider drafting at any position in the first round this year except quarterback and tight end.
But they won't use free agency as a primary way to restock their roster, following a long-standing philosophy.
"No, I don't see any reason or any scenario where we wouldn't follow the same path we have," Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, said yesterday.
Colbert said the process and priorities will remain consistent with what they've done before. They will first talk to their own players who can become unrestricted free agents, including guard Alan Faneca, and then to others under contract they would like to extend, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
While the Steelers could put the franchise tag on Faneca and keep him another year, it's not likely they will do so.
"We haven't closed the door," Colbert said of Faneca. But ... "Again, we know once you get to free agency or are that close to free agency, obviously you're going to have competition. The price most likely has gone up. We haven't closed the door nor will we until we know for sure that we're not going to be in it."
Faneca and linebacker Clark Haggans are the only starters who can become unrestricted free agents. Former starting tackle Max Starks also can become an unrestricted free agent Feb. 29, when the NFL's new calendar year begins.
Colbert said he and others in the organization are in the process of determining how much salary cap room they will have in 2008 -- some incentives earned from last season count this year, for example -- and which players they want to keep and which they do not.
They also will look at free agency; even though they rarely make a splash in free agency, they normally sign a few players, and usually add one starter.
Starters they've added through free agency in recent years include center Sean Mahan (2007), safety Ryan Clark (2006) and receiver Cedrick Wilson (2005). In this century, they also signed free agents who became Pro Bowlers, linebacker James Farrior in 2002 and center Jeff Hartings in 2001.
Colbert said Roethlisberger's impending new deal -- which will easily be the most expensive in club history -- has no bearing on the team's approach to free agency this year.
"Ben is now in that area where he's two years out and that's when we've traditionally addressed the quarterback," Colbert said. "And we will look at guys who are one year out too, in that order."
Among those with one year left on their contracts are Farrior, Wilson, tackle Marvel Smith, quarterback Charlie Batch, tight end Jerame Tuman, cornerback Bryant McFadden and a handful of players who would become restricted free agents after next season.
Colbert agreed with coach Mike Tomlin that the team likely will need help in the offensive and defensive lines, but he did not think the offensive line was as big a problem as many make it out to be.
"Obviously, the sack numbers  were something that were up and were unacceptable. But you also have to realize it's the same line that blocked for the league's leading rusher before his injury and it's the same line that allowed the quarterback to have his best year ever.
"To say you need that position and that it is a glaring need, I don't think it's really fair to that group of guys. That being said, sure you want to add depth -- you realize you can lose two unrestricted free agents, and if you do, maybe that changes your focus as you move forward. But I think you have to keep in mind that group did some good things too."
Colbert said the Steelers could draft virtually any position in the first round, and that includes a running back. Willie Parker led the NFL in rushing until his right fibula was broken in the 15th game in St. Louis.
It's not the injury that might prompt them to draft a back -- Colbert said Parker should be as good as new and he would have returned to play in 2007 if the injury came earlier in the season.
Might they draft a back in the first round?
"Heck, yeah, absolutely," Colbert said.
"LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner [of San Diego], Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney [of New England], Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw [of the New York Giants]. Just looking at the teams that are still successful -- look at what Ryan Grant's doing for the Packers after they lost their guy. Unless you have a superstar, and even in San Diego's case, that's as good as it gets but it's still nice to have another guy."