The Steelers have some tough decisions to make concerning their six unrestricted free agents before the signing period begins March 5. What they do about their hulking nose tackle may be one of the hardest.
Casey Hampton will play in his fifth Pro Bowl next Sunday and it might not be the last time this year he wears a football uniform other than his Steelers No. 98.
• For nine seasons, since he broke into the starting lineup as a rookie in 2001, Hampton has anchored some of the best defenses of the decade at nose tackle. But unless the team makes a move to keep him over the next month, Hampton will become an unrestricted free agent March 5.
The Steelers have options, none of them cheap. They can negotiate a long-term contract over the next month or they can put either a franchise or transition tag on Hampton.
His agent does not know what to expect, but sources told the Post-Gazette the team will try to sign Hampton one way or another before he becomes a free agent. That is something they did not try to do last year while they signed other players to long-term contracts before they started their final year under their old deals, players such as defensive end Brett Keisel, tight end Heath Miller and offensive tackle Max Starks.
"Really, we don't know right now," said agent Eric Armstead, who hopes to talk to the Steelers during Senior Bowl practices this week in Mobile, Ala. "They have time to toy around until March. It's an administrative decision.
A look at the other free agents the Steelers must decide on in anticipation of the start of free agency on March 5:
"Typically, the Steelers do business one way. When they want to retain a person, they sign him a year early and don't make a big splash. They are textbook."
That is what they did with Hampton the last time around. He had one year left on his contract when they signed him to a new one in the summer of 2005 at $22.75 million for five years. They ignored him last summer under identical circumstances and one year after coach Mike Tomlin put him on the physically unable to report list when the coach said he did not report to training camp in shape.
Replacing Hampton would be a difficult job. Chris Hoke remains his backup and played well when he started 12 games in 2004, including two in the playoffs, after Hampton's season ended with a torn ACL. Hoke has not had to play often since then, although he regularly enters games to give Hampton a rest. Hoke turns 32 in April, Hampton 33 in September.
Hampton has said he wants to stay with the Steelers and privately has told people that someone promised him the team would not put the franchise tag on him.
However, the Steelers might have no choice and it might be their best avenue. The cost to put the one-year franchise or transition tenders on a player have not yet been revealed by the league or the players union. Last season a one-year salary required to pay a franchised defensive tackle was slightly more than $6 million, about $5.5 million for the transition tag.
Each team will have both a franchise and transition tag if the collective bargaining agreement is not extended by March 5. That might not be a bad way for the Steelers to go with Hampton, who counted $6,652,000 against their salary cap last season. He would roughly count the same if franchised in 2010.
If they put the "exclusive" franchise tag on Hampton, he cannot negotiate with other teams. The "non-exclusive" tag would allow him to negotiate and if he signs and the Steelers do not match, they would receive two first-round draft choices in return. The transition tag only allows the Steelers the right to match another contract and keep the player.
"They haven't suggested making him the franchise player," Armstead said. "But a lot of times teams don't, so we really, really don't know."
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