You Have One Move and You Better Make it Count

By most accounts, the Pittsburgh Steelers have some cap issues to address in 2004. The Steelers may be as much as 2 or 3 million dollars in the red with only 43 players under contract for next season. Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert will work their cap voodoo, but one big move in free agency is all about the Steelers can afford.

The Pittsburgh Steelers sport a host of needs heading into the off-season, but not much in the way of room to maneuver.

Topping the list of needs is a franchise running back. The Steelers thought seriously about chasing RB Larry Johnson in last year's draft, but figured (incorrectly) that they were a strong safety away from returning to the AFC Championship. SS Troy Polamalu will solve more problems next season than he did in 2003, allowing the Steelers to let Mike Logan drift in free agency.

Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue are expensive backups at best. Zereoue is a sure cut. The Steelers can free up a quick $1.7 million in cap by letting him go. That's going to be the operating logic during the off-season, get the most cap room for your cut.

Bettis is in the same ballpark, representing some $1.6 million in savings. The Steelers are going to have to sign their draft picks no matter what, which currently stands at 8 picks, and you can bet a rookie will fill the shoes of Bettis and Zereoue, not a free agent. Dipping into free agency merely negates the $3.3 million in cap you opened up by releasing Bettis and Zereoue.

However, the game of 2-for-1 is not going to fill the roster. 1-for-2 is a bit more like it. Right tackle was a huge problem this past season. Oliver Ross is serviceable, especially when the rest of the line is healthy, but not when you consider the over $1.7 million in cap savings he represents. Replacing Ross with a draft pick would be the most economical. However, the Steelers could chase a bigger name offensive tackle in free agency with Ross' cap money.

The New England Patriots started Dan Koppen at center, a rookie drafted in the fifth round. The tough cap logic might dictate that the Steelers do the same. If they were just one RT away from contending, they might go big, but everyone knows that is not the case.

Speaking of centers, Jeff Hartings could provide over $1 million in cap relief. Don't expect him to get the axe. Given the roster numbers problem, he's a strong candidate for restructuring. Hartings figured out how to play with the pain and should return to form in 2004.

TE Mark Bruener also offers over $1 million in cap and you can say your good-byes now. Here's your 1-for-2, Bruener for two UDFAs, or something in that salary category.

That about covers the offense in terms of big cuts for big dollars. Look for a Hines Ward extension that saves them some dough in the short term. Ward hits the cap at over $2.4 million in 2004 and has only 2 years left on his contract. His base is almost $1.7 million, which could be reduced to the veteran minimum. Alan Faneca also has a high base salary, $3.5 million, which could be restructured if needed.

I wouldn't expect any big free agency moves on the offensive side of the ball. The draft will be all about offense.

The top 5 cap hogs on defense, in order, are Jason Gildon, Aaron Smith, Chad Scott, DeWayne Washington, and Joey Porter. Washington is surely gone, saving the team almost $2.7 million in cap. Scott has a year beyond Washington in his contract and stays just because he offers less in relief. Besides, dump both starting corners and you must chase a name corner in free agency. 2-for-1 doesn't help.

LB James Farrior is actually the next best cut, but he was one of the good guys in 2003 along with Aaron Smith. Smith might be a target of restructuring, but that will be tricky.

Gildon offers just over $1 million in cap. That's not great and the Steelers desperately need to upgrade the position. Alonzo Jackson looks like a long-term project, as in, not in my lifetime. The secondary is going with youth and speed with Chris Hope, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend, and Chad Scott making up the starting nickel. The draft is just another red shirt rookie.

The recommendation for the one big move in free agency is to replace Gildon with Adalius Thomas. The draft can offer a lot of things but not a rookie starter at OLB in the Steelers scheme. Thomas has already shown he can play the position and is much tougher against blockers than Gildon ever was.

Thomas will also further bolster the coverage units while providing Jackson some more time to figure out if he really wants to play football. Thomas will want some jingle, but the Steelers can backload his contract somewhat to optimize the savings from the cut of Gildon.

Thomas is the one move that could make the biggest difference. Gildon was a major liability in 2003. Ross and the situation at right tackle make a tempting target, but fresh legs and talent at running back should do wonders for the offensive line, not to mention better health for Marvel Smith, Hartings and Kendall Simmons. Many fans would prefer a free agent corner (or perhaps a first round draft pick), but the secondary will surely look radically transformed without such a move.

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