Every year, when the free agency signing period begins, fans and front offices alike scan the list of available players looking for that one difference-maker that will put their team over the top. But free agency is not the cure-all for what ails a team; more often than not it's what made it sick. Poor decisions in free agency are like poor decisions at the top of the draft. Laying cash out for little in return can be crippling.
The Steelers have done a fine job in free agency it would seem, at least of late. Likewise for the draft. Over the last several years the team has retained stars like Jerome Bettis, Jason Gildon, Aaron Smith, Joey Porter, Hines Ward, and Alan Faneca. They've locked up Chad Scott, Dewayne Washington, and Deshea Townsend, their top three corners. They've added Jeff Hartings at center, James Farrior at inside linebacker, and a pair of solid safeties in Brent Alexander and Mike Logan.
The draft has been fruitful as well, especially on day one. Plaxico Burress, Marvel Smith, Kendrick Clancy, and Hank Poteat in 2000; Casey Hampton, and Kendrell Bell in 2001; and Kendall Simmons, Antwaan Randle El, and Chris Hope in 2002. Not a bad haul. Day two has offered some contributors, or future contributors, as well in Clark Haggans, Chukky Okobi, Rodney Bailey, Larry Foote, Verron Haynes, Lee Mays, and Brett Keisel. Six "starters" on day one -- some among the best at their position -- and a host of promising young back-ups and future starters; not bad at all.
Truth is, the Steelers will need to turn a trick or two a week from Saturday to remain contenders beyond 2004. Much of the work they have done has built a solid foundation of youth and talent. The nucleus of this team ranges in age from the 22-year old Bell to the 28-year old Scott. Vets like Gildon, Bettis, Hartings, Washington, Alexander, Logan, and quarterback Tommy Maddox are all on the wrong side of 30, however. And that is where the homework starts.
One look at the Steelers depth chart at wide receiver and one is tempted to proclaim "dynasty!" at the top of their lungs. Hines Ward made his second consecutive all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii this year after a record-chasing, record-breaking season. Ward has over 200 catches the last two years for more than 2,300 yards and 16 TDs. Stats aside, the guy is just a football player, the kind every team would love to have and hates to play against. Plaxico Burress is still a boy among men, but is respected in the lockerroom despite his perceived immaturity. He is also one of the most feared players in the league at his position. His 1,300 receiving yards in 2002 does not include the 123 yards of defensive holding and pass interference penalties he drew as overmatched defenders clutched, grabbed, and flailed in a futile effort to defend him. And then there is second-year slot receiver Antwaan Randle El. Despite the occasional drop and a number of ill-timed fumbles, Randle El was the Steelers' most reliable pass catcher and the third-best in the league when it came to converting his opportunities. As a rookie he caught 72.3% of the 65 passes thrown his way -- ideal numbers for a third-down specialist. The Steelers are loaded at this position and have the promising speedster Lee Mays in the wings. All are signed through at least 2004, after which Burress becomes an unrestricted free agent, and Mays a restricted free agent. This is good.
Traditionally, the strength of this team has been its defense, and when tradition has held true, the Steelers were generally well-stocked at linebacker. That would appear to be the case now as well, but a closer look reveals some cause for concern. Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, and Kendrell Bell are Pro Bowl LBs and James Farrior had a wonderful 2002 despite playing without injured inside running mate Bell for much of the season. The play of designated QB-chaser Gildon, however, noticeably declined last season -- not good considering his current $4.1M price tag increases substantially over the next three years. To complicate things there is little depth outside, and at the position in general. Back-up John Fiala is a likely June 1st cap casualty and both Bell and Farrior are free agents after 2004. This is not good.
And then there's the secondary. Yoi, and double-yoi! The Steelers' top six defensive backs were paid handsomely in 2002, and were summarily toasted all season. Starters Scott and Washington will collect upwards of $4.3M and $4.7M, respectively. Logan will be paid $1.185M, and both Alexander and Townsend will earn nearly a million apiece. None of the three should be starters, given past performances. Beyond these five, there is second-year Chris Hope and nothing else. Need I say more?
The Steelers need to play this right certainly. The glaring need here is in the secondary and, despite rumors to the contrary, that is where the team must look early and often on draft day. Quite honestly, there is barely a handful of players that should deter the front office from selecting a cornerback or safety in round one. Unless they catch a falling star, then the pick should for all intents and purposes be Texas A&M's Sammy Davis. After all, there is only room for one $4M non-Pro Bowl CB in the Steelers beleaguered secondary, and Chad Scott isn't going anywhere. That's my pick, and per the advice of my esteemed colleague Jim Russell, I'm sticking to it.
:: The deadline for offering a restricted free agent deadline an offer sheet is April 18th. Clark Haggans -- the only notable Steelers RFA out there -- has gotten little interest since February. His return, barring an eleventh-hour deal, seems imminent. Question is, how good of news is that?
:: The laughable New Orleans Saints sent a slew of picks in the 2003 and 2004 drafts to the New England Patriots for free safety Tebucky Jones. Shed no tears, Steeler fans. My favorite quote came courtesy of sportswriter Tom Curran of the Providence Journal who wrote, "New Orleans had better be paying Jones for what he'll become because, if they think a finished product should tackle like Jones does (inconsistently), cover downfield like Jones does (like a kid flying a kite in a hurricane) or be a part-time player as Jones has always been, be thankful you're not a Saints fan." ‘Nuff said.
:: The Jones deal is actually cause for celebration as the spill-down effect may net the Steelers free agent strong safety Sammy Knight at a far more reasonable price than that which he was asking for last Wednesday. Knight counted the Miami Dolphins among his -- count ‘em -- two suitors, but now it appears Pittsburgh is the only bidder left in the furious Sammy-freaking-Knight sweepstakes. The Dolphins prefer to re-sign their own RFA SS Arturo Freeman, and will likely reach a long-term agreement with Freeman before the draft, if not in the next few days.
:: I have no qualms about the Steelers drawing just one Monday Night Football game in 2003. In fact, that too is cause for celebration. The late kickoff is a killer here on the right coast, and John Madden's incessant yammering has become more than I can take. That said, he still makes a world more of sense than that "other" Madden (who?). Oh, and I love his video game.
Let this one marinate …
There is a school of thought that says a first round pick should be expected to contribute significantly as a rookie. I agree, absolutely. Many however read into that as expecting said first-rounder to start. I disagree, vehemently. There is little room for a rookie starter on this team, except perhaps at strong safety. That alone should not decide the pick. Should Knight end up in Pittsburgh, a rookie safety would prove useless, just as Hope was in 2002. A rookie corner, however, would be invaluable, thus my desire for Davis. His contributions in the dime -- the true Achilles heel of the Steelers defense -- could well push this team over the top.