Playing 21 With Steelers' UFAs

The combine may be the unofficial start of draft season but it's also the symbolic start to the free-agency season ...

... specifically in terms of deciding on one's own free agents.

While today is the first day teams can lock up a free agent with the franchise tag, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said it's "doubtful" he'll use it. But Colbert did say that the combine in Indianapolis is a place "where parties involved are within a five-block area, so communication is easy."

Meaning, it's time to talk to player agents.

The Steelers have 21 of their own free agents. After talking with members of the organization at all levels I've put together my own priority list, and I'll start at the top with the obvious one:

1. Jason Worilds, OLB -- After putting a low-to-nonexistent priority on Keenan Lewis following his first good season in 2012, and then losing him and watching him blossom fully in New Orleans, the Steelers can't afford to lose another young defender this way. Because Worilds has had only one good season, the Steelers believe they can keep him with a modest offer. If they're wrong, and Worilds decides he would rather uproot and re-learn someone else's system, the Steelers will have to keep LaMarr Woodley and his health issues and prohibitive salary.

2. Al Woods, DE/NT -- The key in negotiations will be masking Woods' value as a backup. But Woods' versatility is that important, particularly since it's becoming obvious to the team that Loni Fangupo isn't going to grow into a starter at NT.

3. Brett Keisel, DE -- While Cameron Heyward was the most impressive and dynamic d-lineman last season, Keisel may have been their most consistent until a foot injury knocked him out of five games. He's since checked out medically, and unless the Steelers draft a nose tackle in the first round and move disappointing NT Steve McLendon to end, they're going to need a starting RDE until Brian Arnfelt or Woods is ready to replace the 35-year-old Keisel.

4. Jerricho Cotchery, WR -- Like Woods, Cotchery is a valuable reserve who should be available at a rather cheap price. He'll turn 32 before the start of the season and his leadership will be invaluable to expected first-year starter Markus Wheaton, as well as the tall practice-squadders -- Justin Brown and Derek Moye -- who are looking at a great opportunity to make the team.

5. Ryan Clark, FS -- He has one foot in the media and it seems as if his commentary has become more sharp this off-season. That's good news if you're in the media but bad news if you're still on a team. Do the Steelers want to deal with this conundrum from a player whose performance fell off at the age of 34? What's keeping him this high on the list is that the Steelers really don't have a free safety in the pipeline. Troy Polamalu and Shamarko Thomas are clearly strong safety types, and Thomas showed value as the No. 3 safety in what became Dick LeBeau's favorite sub-package. The other young safety, Robert Golden, just hasn't made any plays. Do they count on Golden's third year being his coming out year? The belief is the Steelers will re-sign either Keisel or Clark, and since the defensive line has more holes Keisel gets the nod here.

6. Fernando Velasco, C -- Was cut in Tennessee by the Steelers' new line coach, but Mike Munchak was only making an economical move after paying Velasco too much a few months before cutting him. So Muchack respects Velasco and vice-versa. But after Velasco proved he can be an effective starter last season, would he stay here as the No. 1 reserve? That won't be known until the call is placed, but Velasco says his injured Achilles will be healed by the spring, so the Steelers will likely make that call and try to keep him.

7. Guy Whimper, G-T -- Cost factors into this list just as much as talent, and that's why Whimper's ranked so high. After going into last season with very little depth on the OL, players such as this would give the team a big jump early in the season.

8. Cody Wallace, C -- Played well after Velasco went down and is the perfect fallback if they can't sign Velasco cheaply. Wallace would have no problem staying here as a reserve after fitting into the locker room.

9. Jonathan Dwyer, RB -- Another player at a position in disarray, Dwyer wasn't given much respect around the league after being cut before the opener last year, and that should be reflected in the low price the Steelers will offer to keep him. He's an effective short-yardage back who knows the system and could step in as a starter if Le'Veon Bell goes down.

10. Emmanuel Sanders, WR -- The Steelers probably won't even make him an offer because it's time to promote Wheaton, even if that promotion has yet to be earned. And if the Steelers decide that Wheaton should start the season as the No. 3 WR, they would like more size at the position, leaving Sanders out of the mix.

11. Ziggy Hood, DE -- Good thing the team didn't listen to me and extend Hood last training camp because the former No. 1 pick not only lost his job to Heyward, the Steelers kept Keisel as the starter on the other side. Not a good sign for Hood, who really should be playing on a team with a four-man front.

12. Felix Jones, RB -- The draft could provide the Steelers with a better kickoff return option and pass-catcher out of the backfield, but Jones can be had cheaply and the team could get by with him as an emergency starter for a week or two.

13. Will Allen, S -- Proved in Dallas early last season that he's not a starter, but he gave the Steelers a serviceable No. 3 in their sub-packages and he can play special teams. Again, a cheap reserve who fits in well with leadership.

14. Greg Warren, LS -- One of six who've been with the team through all three recent Super Bowls, Warren should be an easy minimum-wage signing as a 10-year vet.

15. David Johnson, FB-TE -- Has missed the last two seasons with knee injuries but has been rehabbing with the team and could resume his career as a versatile and physical reserve.

16. Michael Palmer, TE -- If Johnson doesn't check out medically, Palmer's the fourth tight end. He showed enough skills as a blocker, special-teamer and pass-catcher to perhaps even pass No. 3 David Paulson on the depth chart if Paulson doesn't gain strength and confidence before his third season.

17. LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB -- Some in the organization like him better than I do. He showed some flashes last preseason but to me he's just another little guy coming off an ACL tear.

18. Stevenson Sylvester, LB -- I liked this guy coming out of Utah, but he hasn't made those same plays with the Steelers either inside, outside, or on special teams. He's a hard-worker, and is versatile, but he may be better off as a 4-3 OLB.

19. Jamaal Westerman, LB -- Signed with the Steelers last December, marking his sixth team since coming out of Rutgers in 2009. The Steelers will need a fourth OLB if Sylvester goes elsewhere, so Westerman is my fallback.

20. Mat McBriar, P -- Will turn 35 before training camp and would make an ideal mentor for the new, younger and wilder Aussie punter, Brad Wing. And if Wing blows up on the Steelers, McBriar could give them another season of 35.0 net.

21. Plaxico Burress, WR -- Doesn't really work, lead or re-hab very hard. He'll be 37 before the opener. It's probably time for him to hang it up.

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