The 2007 free agency period officially begins in a week. It's slim pickins' but fortunately, the Steelers have every starter under contract except right tackle Max Starks, and he's a restricted free agent. A year from now, however, things could be very different.
Thanks to this excellent analysis, the Pittsburgh Steelers are currently about $2 million under the salary cap. That's not a lot of wiggle room, but much could change between now and the start of training camp. For the sake of argument, though, let's assume it doesn't. If nothing else, it will give us something to talk about other than the draft. Which means I will have a little more time to watch and re-watch the NFL Combine and make all my player evaluations based solely on 40-yard-dash times, standing long jump distances, and vertical leaps. You know, the three skills that never come into play during a football game. Anyway…
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette hit on the potential 2008 free agent free-for-all in Tuesday's column:
The Steelers have a star-studded lineup of players entering the final year of their contracts in 2007. They will try to negotiate extensions with many, but history shows they can't sign them all.
Among the starters headed into the final year of their contracts are four current or former Pro Bowl players -- guard Alan Faneca, safety Troy Polamalu, linebacker Joey Porter and defensive end Aaron Smith. Other starters working on their final contract year are guard Kendall Simmons, linebacker Clark Haggans and fullback Dan Kreider.
Let's assume it's February 2008 and I won the Bring the Crazy Steelers Fan to Work Day raffle. The team is in the middle of negotiating free-agent contracts and I'm general manager for the day. So, what do I do? Which free-agent starters should I keep? Who should I tell to hit the bricks? Well, glad you asked:
Alan Faneca, G: To me, this is a no-brainer. Faneca will be 31-years-old next off-season, but he could still be a top-5 guard for four or five more years. In 2006, he made $3.7 million, second only to the Raiders' Barry Sims among offensive guards. (Note: These numbers are from NFLPA.org and don't include signing bonuses, roster bonuses, perfect attendance incentives, or rewards for avoiding arrest. Just salary.)
Next season, Faneca will rank third with a $3.4 million salary. Looking at 2008 and 2009, the average salary among the five highest-paid guards is $4.9 million and $5.7 million. For some perspective, tackle Marvel Smith will make $4.7 million in 2007 and almost $4.0 in 2008. Historically, I know offensive tackles are better paid, but it's hard to argue that Smith had a better year than Faneca, or that he's more important to the offensive line.
Now, if Faneca wants to be the highest-paid guard in the league, well, then, the Steelers have a problem. Washington's Randy Thomas is scheduled to make $8.0 in 2008 and 2009. (Tell me again why the Redskins suck.) In both years, arguably the NFL's best guard, Steve Hutchinson, ranks third on the annual salary scale.
Faneca doesn't strike me as a guy who'd make such demands, especially at 31. If he wants top-5 money -- somewhere in the $5.5 million range -- then Pittsburgh should break out the checkbook.
Troy Polamalu, S: Here's how I envision the Polamalu-Steelers contract negotiations going down:
Polamalu (representing himself because, well, he's that type of dude): Hello Mr. Khan, I'd like to make…
Omar Khan (oddly, looking very much like Renée Zellweger): You had me at "hello."
Done and done. Now, it probably won't play out just like that, but Polamalu is conceivably the most important player on Pittsburgh's defense … as currently constituted, anyway. And it's those last four words that give me pause when discussing Polamalu's future with the team.
Now, common sense suggests the three-time Pro Bowler would be one of the best players on most every defense in the NFL, no matter the scheme. And though some people pontificate that Polamalu's future role with the team -- especially at it morphs to the 4-3 -- will be lessened, I can't imagine it happening. I mean, if head coach Mike Tomlin is serious when he says players trump scheme then Polamalu will very much be a part of Pittsburgh's plans for the next decade or so.
Let me put it to you this way: If the argument is that Polamalu's versatility doesn't mesh with the Cover-2, 4-3 scheme, then change the scheme because it's stupid. Or how about this: Do you think Bill Belichick would find a way to incorporate Polamalu into New England's defense? Yeah? Me too.
The Steelers should pay him like one of the top safeties in the league.
Joey Porter, OLB: Okay, time to start making the tough decisions. (I didn't win the GM-for-the-Day raffle to single-handedly run this organization into the ground in the time it takes to Google Troy Edwards Jamain Stephens Gabe Rivera. I'm here to win the Super Bowl, baby!)
First, I like Joey Porter. I know a lot of Steelers fans think he talks too much, disappears for long stretches, and is on the downside of his career. Maybe. But he's still a very good outside linebacker, who understands his responsibilities, and is underrated in pass coverage. Sure, he sometimes struggles to beat offensive tackles -- even the mediocre ones -- in one-on-one situations, but it's much harder to find a linebacker who excels in coverage than it is to find a good pass rusher.
That said, here's what I would do with Porter (assuming nothing happens between now and next February … or now and next week): Offer him a new deal, backload the crap out of it -- all the incentives you can think of … and then a few more -- throw in a modest bonus with very little in the way of actual salary the first two seasons. Porter will probably turn it down, and that's okay, because to me, he's not worth more than that. He will be 31 when the 2008 season starts and sure, he could probably play at a relatively high level for three or four seasons, but he could also turn into Jason Gildon. Maybe it's just me, but I'd prefer not to see that movie again.
And just so we're clear, switching to the 4-3 has nothing to do with Porter's future role on Pittsburgh's defense. Money and age do. That's it. If the Steelers moved to the 4-3 three years ago, Porter would have been a top-5 outside linebacker.
Assuming Porter leaves to sign his last ginormous NFL contract, probably in D.C., the Steelers should start making contingency plans … now. They don't need me to tell them this, and depending on what happens with Porter's $1 million roster bouns/$4 million 2007 salary, the front office may already have something in mind.
Aaron Smith, DE: Shorter Ryan Wilson, Steelers GM: Sign Aaron Smith … NOW. If Kimo von Oelhoffen taught us anything, it's that old guys can play on the defensive line at a very high level well into their 30s. If you need more -- much, much, much, more -- proof, just look at the Bengals' Sam Adams. Unlike von Oelhoffen, who was in great shape, Adams is a guy who's basically said, "you know what, I know I'm supposed to be a professional athlete, but I love doughnuts waaaaaaay too much to quit them now." Adams is 33 and listed at 350. Which means he's closer to 450. He wasn't quite the run stopper he was with the Bills and Ravens, but for a dude who is clinically obese, he's doing okay for himself.
But forget the fat jokes for a second; there are two things you need to know about Aaron Smith: First, he's possibly the most underrated defensive player in the league, outside Adrian Wilson (and that's debatable). Second, when Bill Belichick was asked last off-season which Steelers player he most enjoyed watching he named Smith. Smith will be 32 when 2008 rolls around, which in my mind, means he's got at least four more good years left in the tank. And if Pittsburgh lets him go, get used to the thought of him wearing that New England uniform.
Kendall Simmons, G: This couldn't be more straightforward. New offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is apparently fascinated by the idea of moving Simmons to center to see what he can do. Honestly, I'm kinda curious too. Let's say Simmons successfully makes the transition and looks great doing it, then what? If the team is confident in Simmons, they should offer him a competitive, long-term deal. Compared to tackles and guards, centers, on average, are the most affordable. Moving Simmons not only saves money, it could save his career and make the Steelers better in the process.
If Simmons flops at center, or worse, flops at right guard, then, well, that's that, I guess. Like Keydrick Vincent in 2005, Pittsburgh could make him a half-assed offer and see what the market is for his services, or they could just choose to move on.
Whatever position Simmons plays in 2007, I hope he has a great year. He seems like a solid dude, and he's had a string of bad luck. But that's the fan in me, not the ruthless, it's-all-about-winning GM.
Clark Haggans, OLB: Here's a typical conversation I'll often have with myself during the course of a Steelers game: Haggans, yeah, he has his "wow" moments, but is he better than James Harrison?
Okay, that's not so much a conversation as a question, but either way, it's still valid. And I'm not convinced the answer is "yes, Haggans is obviously better than Harrison." I think back to the 2005 Monday Night Game in San Diego when Harrison had that nifty interception and then leap-frogged LaDainian Tomlinson on the return. Or, the year before that, when he helped Pittsburgh beat the Ravens by knocking down a late-game fourth-down Kyle Boller pass. There aren't any plays that immediately spring to mind involving Haggans.
Not to take anything away from him -- Haggans has been more than serviceable as a starter -- but I'd like to see what Harrison would do over the course of 16 games. I know he will be 29 when the 2007 season begins -- Haggans will be 30 -- but Harrison is kind of like Willie Parker in that he doesn't have a lot of wear and tear from overuse.
Similar to Simmons, I'd offer Haggans a middle-of-the-road contract, expect him to go elsewhere, and if he re-signs with the Steelers, it's at a bargain for the team.
I'm quite certain the Steelers front office has already discussed all the scenarios I've outlined above, but in more detail and with greater clarity of purpose. (Hey, I was only GM for the day, what do you want?) In all likelihood, their draft strategy is inextricably linked with their free-agent plans for 2007, 2008 and beyond. I didn't mention the draft because, frankly, I wanted to keep this under 10,000 words. Plus, there will be plenty of time for that in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, somebody ask Bob Smizik, the crotchetiest guy on the planet who still gets his hair done by Richard Simmons' stylist, why he's such a jerk. My guess? Somebody on staff at the old folks home forgot to give him his applesauce and he went bonkers. Relax, old man. There's plenty of applesauce for everybody; no need to get nasty.
By Ryan Wilson
Posted Feb 23, 2007