Signing could mean end for Bruener

In a move that could signal the end of the Mark Bruener era in Pittsburgh, the Steelers signed free-agent tight end Jay Riemersma to a three-year contract worth $3.9 million.

Riemersma, 30, received a signing bonus of $850,000 two days after the team had re-signed tight end Matt Cushing and nearly three weeks after it had re-signed Jerame Tuman, yet another tight end.

The move leaves little room at the position for Bruener, an eight-year veteran who missed the final six games last season after undergoing radical microfracture surgery to regenerate cartilage growth in his left knee.

Bruener, who renegotiated his contract with the Steelers prior to last season, has four years left on a $14 million deal. The pro-rated portion of his $3 million signing bonus would cost the Steelers $2.4 million against the salary cap if he's released before June 1.

If Bruener remains with the team, his 2003 salary would be $2.05 million and the team would be on the books for $2.65 million against the cap.

Bruener underwent surgery in December and is currently in the midst of a six-month rehabilitation process. Team sources feel he's progressing on schedule, but the low percentage of full recoveries made by those who've undergone the procedure has forced the Steelers to prepare for a worse-case scenario.

The surgery involves the drilling of three small holes, or microfractures, into bone matter. In theory, blood surfaces through the holes and "congeals" to provide a buffer between the bone-on-bone friction that's developed through the loss of cartilage.

Doctors who support the procedure point to the recoveries made by Dan Marino, Rod Woodson and Bruce Smith, however, none of those players returned to their previous skill levels.

Other players, such as Chuck Smith, Eric Swann, Andre Wadsworth, Jason Sehorn, Dan Neil, Dusty Ziegler and Patrick Jeffers have either retired or returned to play in a minimal capacity. Reviews are mixed on the post-surgery performance of Kevin Hardy, while teams are currently in the process of replacing microfracture rehabilitators DeShaun Foster, Tony Brackens and Courtney Brown. Apparently, Bruener joined that list with the Steelers' signing of Riemersma.

"Pittsburgh has approached me with a need and I'm just excited to be here," Riemersma said.

A 6-foot-5, 252-pound veteran of seven NFL seasons, Riemersma made 204 career catches with the Buffalo Bills after being drafted out of the University of Michigan in the seventh round of the 1996 draft.

Last season, Riemersma, who's considered more of a pass-catching tight end, caught 32 passes for 350 yards as offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride emphasized his wide receivers. Riemersma had also fallen into disfavor with Bills President Tom Donahoe over contract matters.

"Let's just say me and the old boss that was around here didn't get along too well," Riemersma said.

He was asked whether his departure from Buffalo had more to do with a change in positional philosophy or problems with money.

"Both of those things are probably correct," Riemersma said. "The tight end they're looking for doesn't really go with the kind of talent I bring to the tight end position. And also I think it was a salary-cap situation, too."

By Jim Wexell
Steel City Sports

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