Pittsburgh has one week before it must decide whether to use its franchise or transition tags on one or two of its free agents. The most likely to get the franchise tag is nose tackle Casey Hampton.
While the team's acknowledged top priorities — Hampton, free safety Ryan Clark and kicker Jeff Reed — cannot become unrestricted free agents until March 5, NFL teams must designate their franchise and transition tags by next Thursday.
"I think there will be time," said Kevin Colbert, their director of football operations. "Right now we're not looking at it as against the clock or anything like that."
Hampton has said he does not want to be the franchise player and will not be happy if the Steelers designate him as such. However, the team may have no choice. Hampton, who turns 33 in September, wants big money and he and the Steelers are not considered to be in the same ballpark on the amount he should be paid.
If they make him their franchise player, his salary cap will be a trifle more in 2010 at $7 million than it was in 2009. It would give them another year to groom or find someone else to succeed Hampton and to assess whether to try to keep him at age 34 in 2011 with all its labor issues looming.
Hampton has said someone in the organization promised not to make him the franchise player. He did not identify who that was, but it seems they will be ready to use it on him if necessary.
"Our stance on the tags is that while we don't like to use them we're never going to say that we're not going to use something that is collectively bargained as a tool in this process," Colbert said.
The team also could tag Reed if they decide not to use it on Hampton or sign him to a long-term contract. Reed's tag would cost them only $2.8 million or much less than the average of $4 million that kicker Sebastian Janikowski just received from Oakland on a four-year contract.
Colbert said negotiations for long-term contracts with each of the three would begin by Feb. 19.
—Coach Mike Tomlin hired Scottie Montgomery, 31, as his wide receivers coach. Montgomery coached Duke University's wide receivers the past four seasons. He played at Duke and for three seasons with the Denver Broncos.
—The Steelers remain reluctant to talk about what happened to WR Limas Sweed, placed on injured reserve for an unknown "illness" late last season that was not physical.
"That's something that will be addressed at the proper time and now's not the proper time," Kevin Colbert said.
—RB Willie Parker has been working out in Dallas in preparation for free agency. Colbert said he is among those Steelers veteran free agents who will not receive a contract offer before March 5.
—Colbert would not talk about his own contract, which has one year left.
"Anything to do with my personal status I would not talk about it at this point or at any point. That's really not for me to discuss. I'm totally happy in my position at this point, sure."
It long has been rumored that if Bill Cowher took another coaching job, Colbert would join him as GM.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We will operate as we always have. We will operate as if we have a cap because you don't know what you're going to be dealing with." — Steelers football operations director Kevin Colbert on the team's 2010 budget.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Steelers signed two more players to contracts, CB David Pittman and LB Renauld Williams. Pittman was a third-round draft pick of the Ravens in 2006 and has little experience. Williams played for the 49ers, Dolphins and the past three seasons in the CFL.
First up for the Steelers is to sign a couple of impending unrestricted free agents. The only UFAs they will try to sign before March 5 are Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton, starting free safety Ryan Clark and kicker Jeff Reed. Reed will be their first priority. If they cannot sign Hampton to a multiple-year deal, they could franchise him. Clark will not be franchised or transitioned and is unlikely to come to terms by March 5.
Two veterans will not get offers before March 5, although the team might be interested in them if they do not get good offers elsewhere. Halfback Willie Parker and cornerback Deshea Townsend have been important members of two Super Bowl champions but they no longer are starters and would have to return as backups.
Starting right tackle Willie Colon will stay a RFA if there is no new CBA and they will issue him a high tender, as they did last season when he first became a RFA.
1. Offensive line: One reason the Steelers cannot run when they want is the blocking. They get no push from their front line. They have to develop a tackle at the very least and need to find their future centers.
2. Defensive line: They addressed this last year with DE Ziggy Hood in the first round, but they need to restock a line that has grown old. Another end and nose tackle are a must.
3. Defensive backs: With FS Ryan Clark likely leaving as a free agent, they have no one to replace him. Their CBs are below average as well.
MEDICAL WATCH: Two Steelers have had shoulder surgeries since the end of the season. Starting center Justin Hartwig and reserve safety Ryan Mundy underwent the procedures, although no other details on the corrective measures were available.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
—QB Charlie Batch is a reliable, when healthy, backup and that is the issue because he missed all of 2008 and ended 2009 with a broken wrist. He wants to return.
—LB Rocky Boiman was a late edition to try to save their drowning special teams. He's not likely to return.
—SS Tyrone Carter won't get a contract from the Steelers again unless he finds nothing from anywhere else.
—FS Ryan Clark would like to return and the team wants him back, but they are not likely to settle on a price before free agency begins.
—DE Nick Eason, if he's willing to return at a minimum salary, could re-sign.
—WR Joey Galloway was a late signing after Limas Sweed was placed on injured reserve. He did not dress for either game and he is not likely to be invited back.
—NT Casey Hampton is a priority to keep one way or the other. They will try to negotiate a new deal but it's more likely they will have to put the franchise tag on him.
—DE Travis Kirschke, although he turns 36 this year, has been dependable and could re-sign if he does not go elsewhere, especially if they get nothing at the position in the draft.
—RB Willie Parker has seen his last days in Pittsburgh. They would love to have him back as a backup to Rashard Mendenhall but he wants more playing time than that.
—K Jeff Reed could be their next signing because he not only is a priority, he's the most signable of their free agents.
—CB Deshea Townsend thinks he can still start in the league and the Steelers have no plans for him to do that. If he finds nothing of his liking in free agency, they will offer him a contract to return.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (*indicates restricted because of uncapped year)
—*OT Willie Colon will be tendered at the highest amount, as he was last season, his third as their starting right tackle.
—CB William Gay had a disappointing first season as a starter but not bad enough that they want to lose him.
—P Daniel Sepulveda was middle of the road and not likely to receive a high tender. He was drafted in the fourth round.
—RB Carey Davis is listed as their starting fullback but rarely played and may not receive a tender.
—TE Matt Spaeth is No. 2 behind Heath Miller. He plays a lot but rarely is used as a target and he's not a good blocker.
—OG Darnell Stapleton was their starting right guard until an injury put him on injured reserve. Could receive a lower tender.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
—LB Patrick Bailey was their rookie of the year for his special-teams play in 2008, but dropped off last season.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: None.
—LB Derrick Doggett: CFL FA; terms unknown.
PLAYERS LOST: None.