This year's crop of potential free agents is even bigger, by five, at 21.
The near-extinction of restricted free agency helped that number grow into what's probably a Steelers record, but please don't make me look that up. I've wasted enough time researching what hopefully will help us grasp how many of these 21 the Steelers can and should re-sign.
Last year, the Steelers signed only three of their 16 unrestricted free agents: Larry Foote, Ramon Foster and Greg Warren. They eventually brought back a fourth -- Will Allen -- in the middle of the season.
This year the signings will certainly be higher, and I've broken the group down by position to get a more precise feel. In parentheses are the average number of players Mike Tomlin has kept at the position for his opening-day roster throughout his seven seasons as coach.
Unrestricted free agents: None.
Commentary: Pretty dull way to start this column.
RUNNING BACKS (5.0)
Commentary: This position needs attention. And the only worthwhile back-up to re-sign is Dwyer, so the Steelers must hope the lack of interest that he received from the league last Aug. 31-Sept. 8 still stands.
WIDE RECEIVERS (5.1)
Commentary: At least the bodies are there. Burress won't get more than minimum wage. Cotchery won't get much more than that. Somebody else will be interested in the soon-to-be 27-year-old Sanders as a No. 3 receiver, since the Steelers don't normally re-sign starters and demote them. (They would demote him, wouldn't they?)
TIGHT ENDS (3.0)
Commentary: Set up nicely here. Even the UFAs are well-regarded by the team and could be had cheaply. I would look at Palmer first, since D.J. has battled leg injuries.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8.7)
Under contract: Kelvin Beachum, Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams, Eric Olsen (exclusive rights free agent), David Snow, Nik Embernate, Chris Hubbard, Bryant Browning, Levi Brown.
Commentary: That group of UFAs would make a great bench. But would Velasco come back cheaply? He said he expects to be healed from his Achilles' injury by OTAs. Perhaps he was selling himself through the media. Perhaps the Steelers can re-sign him cheaply because of the injury. But if Velasco, Wallace and/or Whimper don't come back cheaply the team has enough under contract to START to develop its bench. One would hope they're not caught without opening-day depth for a second consecutive season.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (6.6)
Commentary: Poor numbers (re: what's under contract and what's normally kept), but still better than the RB group. Difference here is that a starting job is wide open. That gives this group of UFAs some leverage, but at the same time the Steelers only need one of the three to accept a smallish offer.
Commentary: It's all about swapping Worilds for Woodley. I'll have individual player evaluations in coming issues, but let's sum this up by calling it an attempt to keep the healthy, soon-to-be 26-year-old instead of the 29-year-old who keeps breaking down. Woodley, of course, has proven himself as a record-setting pass-rusher in post-season arenas, but if the medical people are concerned about him the Steelers will be forced to clear enough cap room to slap the franchise tag on Worilds, and then release Woodley on June 1.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (9.9)
Unrestricted free agents: Ryan Clark, W. Allen.
Commentary: All's well here, numbers-wise, but the late signing of Ventrone is an indication they need a fourth safety. Clark won't come back for minimum wage, but Will Allen probably would. (And a P.S.: I'm not buying this Taylor-to-FS talk. Too much work for a guy who's not naturally inclined for the position.)
Unrestricted free agents: Mat McBriar, Warren.
Commentary: The Steelers would be wise to keep McBriar just to speak Australian to the newly signed Wing and teach him how to be a pro. Wing has a history of both bizarre behavior and eye-popping talent. Also, look for the reliable Warren to be re-signed as the long-snapper.