Steelers Sifting Through the Rubble

Steelers Nation feels like it's been punched in the gut this week. But it's time to pick up the pieces. Jim Wexell outlines the plan.

After learning the Steelers had decided to release Aaron Smith and James Farrior the day after telling Hines Ward the same thing, Brett Keisel had to let off some steam.

So he took his dog for a walk.

And the dog got sprayed by a skunk.

When it goes bad, it goes really bad.

Undaunted, Keisel used a mixture of soap, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda to get the stink out. The Steelers will get started on their concoction Monday.

Not to say what the Steelers did stinks. No, the bloodletting was necessary. But a grieving period for the loss of three main beams of an organization that went to three Super Bowls in the last seven years is certainly necessary.

Only seven players started all three of those Super Bowls. With the loss of Ward and Farrior, those remaining are Casey Hampton, Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

Only 12 players played in all three of those Super Bowls. With the loss earlier this offseason of Chris Hoke and Bryant McFadden, those remaining include the aforementioned five, plus Keisel, Larry Foote and James Harrison.

Can they build around these remaining players?

That's the question they'll begin to answer on March 13, the start of the new fiscal year.

STEP 1: Put the Financial House in Order

The Steelers are unofficially $12 to $14 million under the cap. Unless they need money to match a big offer for Mike Wallace, they don't figure to make any more cuts.

In case of emergency, Jonathan Scott ($2.2 million) and Will Allen ($1.28 million) are candidates. They could also restructure Hampton ($5.89 million) and/or Foote ($3 million)

Of the reserve money, $9 million will be needed on March 13 for tenders to the restricted free agents.

The Steelers will give the $2.742 million first-round tender to Wallace, and most likely the low draft-round tenders of $1.26 million to Ramon Foster (undrafted), David Johnson (7th), Doug Legursky (undrafted), Keenan Lewis (3rd) and Ryan Mundy (6th).

Beginning March 17, teams can offer contracts to those players, and if the Steelers don't match an offer the player will leave and the Steelers will be compensated as described.

It would be a bit of a gamble to offer the draft-round tender to Foster and Legursky, particularly since both are starting guards, and after cutting Chris Kemoeatu the team has only one other guard – practice-squad player John Malecki – under contract.

But again, the Steelers can match any offer and Foster or Legursky don't figure to draw anything too large.

Unrestricted free agency also begins on March 13. The Steelers are talking to WR Jerricho Cotchery about a deal, and if they sign him they figure to lose starting cornerback William Gay and third-down running back Mewelde Moore.

As for their other unrestricted free agents, the Steelers hope they can bring back two of their three backup quarterbacks, punter Daniel Sepulveda, and perhaps reserve guard Trai Essex with minimum-wage contracts.

As for the outlook league-wide, general manager Kevin Colbert said at the combine that he expects an early flurry, "then I think there will be a lull. And then I think there'll be a big back-end market because there'll be a lot of players left without contracts after that initial wave, probably more than ever. So I think teams will be scrambling to add guys they can still fit under their camp and it'll continue to unwind all the way up until the draft."

STEP 2: The Draft

The restricted free agency period ends on April 21, five days before the draft, when the Steelers figure to dive into a solid pool of guards.

They may need two guards in this draft, but also have the option of moving Willie Colon inside, or even Chris Scott, who tried but failed to play guard last preseason.

The Steelers also need a tight end. The four-game suspension of their third tight end, Weslye Saunders, compounds the need, but they do have practice-squad tight end Jamie McCoy under contract.

The Steelers also need depth at inside linebacker and wide receiver, and might want to add a nose tackle to groom along with Steve McLendon behind Hampton.

The Steelers will spend approximately $4.45 million on draft picks.

STEP 3: Filling Voids on the Field

The new CBA slashed the number of offseason workouts from 14 to 10, and roughly five weeks overall from previous springs. So the Steelers need to begin establishing leadership roles early.

Look for Keisel to replace Farrior as the defensive captain, while on offense Roethlisberger has gradually assumed the mantle of leadership over the years with the decline of Ward. Look for Roethlisberger to take that ball and run with it beginning in May.

Speaking of which, offensive coordinator Todd Haley will install his philosophical changes in the spring, while on defense the major changes will be physical.

At this point, Foote would replace Farrior at the all-important buck inside linebacker position, but also look for Lawrence Timmons to begin learning the position and making the calls at various points throughout the spring.

Coordinator Dick LeBeau will most likely need a replacement for Gay at left cornerback. Lewis is next in line, but don't count out last year's impressive rookie, Cortez Allen, for the starting job. Also look for Curtis Brown to take on a more prominent role in the sub packages.

Of course, Step 3 is being plotted in pencil. The Steelers realize that at any point in the next two months they could run into a skunk on the trail and they'll have to get the stink out all over again.

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