17. Dennis Dixon, QB – An unrestricted free agent who figures to fly the coup. He turned 27 a few days ago and would like to position himself to play some day soon. It doesn't look as if that will happen here after peaking as Ben Roethlisberger's fill-in during 2010's suspension. Dixon started in wins over Atlanta and Tennessee but a minor knee injury precipitated a telling move to IR. The next decision was the low RFA tender on which no one bit. Could come back as a No. 3 at minimum wage if no one bites again this spring, but someone will take a chance on a cheap, athletic reclamation project.
18. Jonathan Dwyer, RB – Surely, surely, no one will need to tell Jonathan to come to training camp in shape this time. A repeat performance of last summer would kill him in the competition with John Clay and Baron Batch for the final two spots in the backfield.
19. Trai Essex, OL – Here's a guy who can legitimately play five positions. He added center this past season and played it well enough to be brought back as a reserve. He's an unrestricted free agent who didn't draw much interest last year when he was free, so cost shouldn't be a problem.
20. James Farrior, ILB – Just turned 37 and wants to come back for the last year of his contract. But his snap count and performance dipped precipitously this past season. In a 2-1 rotation with Larry Foote, Farrior's snap count fell by 21 percent. Farrior's performance also slipped, particularly at the end of the season. In his favor are the continued admiration of his defensive coordinator and a relatively low 2012 salary of $2.825 million. Plus, he made a comeback from a sub-par season once before.
21. Larry Foote, ILB – Turns 32 in June and enters the final year of his contract with a $3 million salary. His snap count more than doubled from 2010, and his play was comparable to that of Farrior's. Foote is the only other player on the team capable of running the buck position, so it's difficult to predict which of the two will return. Which will agree to come at a cheaper price?
22. Ramon Foster – Last season's starting right guard ran second team to start the season, but regained his spot in the fourth game when Doug Legursky was injured. When Legursky returned, the Steelers kept Foster in place and he only missed a handful of series the rest of the way. Perhaps they've settled on their right guard of the future. Ben Roethlisberger has supported Foster throughout, so perhaps the team will offer the restricted free agent the second-round tender (that would return a second-round pick if he signs with another team). The other option is to offer him the low tender without any return if he signs elsewhere. The difference in tenders is $667,000.
23. William Gay, CB – An unrestricted free agent with three hungry and talented young players behind him means it's time for Gay to move on. I don't understand this talk of moving him to free safety. I'm not sure where it came from, but I doubt the Rooneys will pay that kind of money to find out.
24. Marcus Gilbert, OT – Team's rookie-of-the-year "has issues," according to one teammate. But after being benched for missing a meeting, Gilbert returned to the lineup and finished the season without incident. He seems like a good teammate to me, but I'm on the outside. On the field, Gilbert drew raves for his run blocking from OC Bruce Arians, who claimed it was much better than that of predecessor Flozell Adams. But rarely did Gilbert collapse his half of the line as Adams. Unless the Steelers strike draft gold in April, Gilbert will be moved to left tackle with the return of Willie Colon to RT. But that does carry a risk for a young player who appeared to be more comfortable at right tackle.
25. Tyler Grisham, WR – Signing with Denver doesn't appear to be a well-timed move by Tyler. Roster spots will be opening up in front of him here as his practice-squad eligibility expires. (Hey, maybe the Steelers plan to pursue Jerricho Cotchery and keep Hines Ward and pointed that out to Grisham in his exit interview … ?)
26. Casey Hampton, NT – The updated numbers tell me his salary will be $4.89 million this season with a $1 million workout bonus. Both parties should be agreeable to cutting his salary, or at least restructuring and extending it. I don't believe they need to cut veterans – particularly an effective NT – for the sake of rushing younger players. Steve McLendon will get enough work.
27. James Harrison, OLB – Is James around? Is he reading? OK, so I can say this: The guy looked a little flabby in the locker room this season. Now, before he kills me, I only say this because it's a good thing. There's no chance of James continuing his slothful ways. I'll assume his injuries took big bites out of his workout regimen and that next season we'll see the Harrison of old. The only worry: Harrison is old. He'll turn 34 in May and I don't buy that "young 34" stuff about him because he didn't play in his first two pro seasons.
28. Cameron Heyward, DE – If you think Heyward will wash out based on his rookie-year stats (9 tackles, 6 QB pressures, 2 passes defensed, 1 sack, 1 blocked field goal), please remember Aaron Smith's rookie-year stats (1 tackle, 1 pass defensed). No, all signs point to Heyward moving upward and onward with the perfect body for a Steelers defensive end and the perfect attitude for the thankless job. The Steelers would like to see a little more "nasty" in Heyward (as discussed here), but no one I've talked to doubts his bright future.
29. Chris Hoke, NT – At 36 years old on April 6, rehabbing a neck injury, and with an expired contract, it would appear that Hokie's ride is over. And what a ride it was. While starting in place of Hampton, Hoke's Steelers went 17-1 in regular-season games (1-1 playoffs). He'll be remembered for more than that, though.
30. Ziggy Hood, DE – Don't understand the predicted move to NT by one respected writer in town. After this season, Hood's ability to hold the point as a defensive end is coming under scrutiny. How will he be expected to hold the nose on run downs? Regardless, Hood's performance slipped from his uneven sophomore season and it would become a concern if not for his exceptional work ethic. I look for the light to come on next season.
31. Mortty Ivy, LB – Here's your longshot to play buck linebacker some day. Needs more time, of course, to learn the most difficult defensive position, but until then he can make the team with his versatility and physical nature – and some good luck on draft day.