Burress or Bell?

The Steelers have been largely silent during this off-season, keeping a few of their own players and signing a couple of mid-level free agents to help fill in some holes. <br><br> But perhaps more than any other team in the NFL, the Steelers are going to feel the pain of what transpired during this off-season. <br><br> Why?

How about the nine-year, $56.5-million contract extension signed by Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher? And if that one wasn't bad enough, look at the seven-year, $35-million deal wide receiver Laveraneus Coles signed to jump from the Jets to the Redskins.

Both deals included $13 million signing bonuses.

What do those two deals have to do with the Steelers?

It's simple.

Urlacher just happens to play the same position as Steelers linebacker Kendrell Bell and was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year one season before Bell took home that honor. And Coles was taken in the same draft that produced Burress and Urlacher - who were the eighth and ninth overall picks, respectively – and has basically the same career numbers as the Steelers' receiver.

And the problem for the Steelers is that both Burress and Bell will be restricted free agents following the 2003 season.

Certainly the Steelers will put a high tender offer on both players, assuring that they would receive at least one first round pick in return from any team that attempts to sign them away. But that didn't stop the Redskins from making an outrageous offer to Coles that the Jets couldn't match without breaking the bank.

Offers to both players as free agents aside, you can bet the agents for both Burress and Bell will use those two deals as the starting point of their negotiations with the Steelers for extensions.

Burress' agent will have a serious argument.

In three seasons, Burress has 166 receptions for 2,606 yards and 13 touchdowns. And his 2002 numbers were 78 catches for 1,325 yards - a league-best 17.0 yards per catch average – and seven scores. In three seasons, Coles has caught 170 passes for 2,502 yards and 13 touchdowns, including totals of 89 catches for 1,264 yards and five scores in 2002.

You can bet Burress is going to want a contract worth at least as much as what Coles got and possibly more. And if the Steelers don't give it to him, some other team will.

As for Bell, his case is going to be a little more difficult to make - unless he has the kind of season the Steelers envision him having.

In three seasons, Urlacher has 19 sacks, six interceptions and has forced four fumbles. He's also been credited with 392 tackles, but since tackles are a highly subjective statistic in the NFL - they're recorded by individual teams, not the league – they are a little more difficult to use in contract negotiations.

In his two seasons, Bell has 13 sacks, 132 tackles and has forced one fumble. And he's done that while missing four full games in 2002.

Bell won't get Urlacher's six interceptions anytime soon, but he could certainly end the 2003 season with more than 19 sacks and four forced fumbles.

Considering both players are the keys to their respective defenses, Bell could easily demand a contract in the neighborhood of what Urlacher received.

The question for the Steelers will be, since they likely won't be able to afford to keep both, which game-breaker do they keep?

Given the Steelers' history, that player will likely be Bell.

Pittsburgh is linebacker heaven. The fans love them and the linebackers get all of the accolades playing in the team's 3-4 defense that demands they have good ones.

And given the fact the Steelers still have Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, while they will miss Burress' ability to cause opposing defenses problems, they can still have a solid receiving corps without him.

Quick Hits

The Steelers teaching school came to an end today and so too did the Steelers career of linebacker John Fiala. Fiala, a sixth-round pick by Miami in 1997, joined the team as a rookie free agent after being waived by the Dolphins. He spent the year on the practice squad and was re-signed as a free agent in February 1998. Fiala served as the special-teams captain each of the past four seasons. Running back Antwon McCray was also released.

Dale Lolley

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