The Steelers Dilemma

With just over two weeks remaining before the NFL draft, the Steelers find themselves in a dilemma. They have struck out once in their attempt to sign a veteran safety, aren't real impressed with the remaining veterans on the free agent market, and head coach Bill Cowher doesn't seem sold on starting either second-year man Chris Hope or a rookie draft pick. <br><br> What to do, what to do?

Bill Cowher desperately wanted former Tampa Bay safety Dexter Jackson to fill the vacancy in the secondary. But Jackson played the Steelers like a Vegas gambler, working them against the Arizona Cardinals to land a big payday. The Steelers' decision to not overpay for Jackson's services was the right one, but it has left them in a lurch.

The other top safeties heading into this free agent period - Jacksonville's Donovin Darius and New England's Tebucky Jones - were both franchised, while Cory Hall, another player the team had targeted, signed with Atlanta before making his scheduled visit to Pittsburgh.

That leaves the Steelers looking at the likes of Sammy Knight and Kwame Lassiter as veteran fallback possibilities in case Chris Hope or whatever rookie they draft isn't ready to play.

Knight has overvalued himself, demanding a pay increase from the $1.9 million deal he voided with New Orleans to become a free agent. Until he realizes that's not too likely to happen, Knight can sit at home and take care of his wife and their new baby.

Lassiter, meanwhile, is 33 years old - two years older than free safety Brent Alexander - and on the definite downside of his career.

The Steelers thought enough of Hope last year to make him their third-round draft pick. But he played sparingly as a rookie and, even though they won't say so publicly, it's becoming obvious the coaching staff is not  convinced he can handle the duties of being a starter in the NFL at this point in his career.

That leaves the team looking at a safety as its top priority in the draft.

Troy Polamalu and Mike Doss are the top two strong safety prospects in this year's draft and at least one of the two should be available when the Steelers pick in the first round with the 27th-overall selection. Either could likely step in and start right away for the Steelers.

But if a player the team has rated higher than those two - say quarterback Kyle Boller or a player of his ilk - the team would have to take the higher-rated player and fill the safety need later.

This is a team that learned its lesson in 1999 when it took wide receiver Troy Edwards with the 13th-overall pick, passing on tackle John Tait and defensive end Jevon Kearse, both of whom it had rated higher. Tait and Kearse are very solid NFL players; Edwards is now a backup with the St. Louis Rams.

The thing to remember is that Knight's price will come down. Million-dollar lifestyles require million-dollar paychecks. And right now, Knight isn't bringing home anything. Sooner or later, he'll realize that a decent paycheck is better than no paycheck.

And even if that doesn't work out, there are still the June 1st cuts to take into account. Alexander was signed by the team after being released June 1st two years ago, as was Charlie Batch last season. Teams are constantly tweaking their rosters in an effort to stay under the salary cap.

While it's easy to look at the team right now and say it hasn't bettered its defense - which it hasn't - the Steelers don't line up and play for real until September. Sit back, enjoy the draft, and see how things are after that.

Dale Lolley

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