June on the South Side

Another typical June for the Pittsburgh Steelers under the leadership of Bill Cowher: the Rooneys make good on a promise, dead weight is cut, key players retained, and the depth chart shored up. However, Plaxico Burress remains the square peg in the round hole.

OLB Jason Gildon is cut, QB Tommy Maddox renegotiates, and the Pittsburgh Steelers sign S Ainsley Battles to a one-year deal. If the last decade or so is any indication, we can expect a few more extensions of players the Steelers believe comprise the core of a successful football team.

At this point, any big splash in the market of free agency would be a shock. A trade would seem more likely, given how the off-season has progressed to date. But the Steelers are mostly concerned with getting their own house in order right now.

The biggest news is Maddox's new contract. Don't consider the fact that the Steelers finally ponied up the jingle as any indication of faith in Tommy's play. More likely, the Rooneys made a promise that Tommy would get his in all due time.

ESPN.com is reporting a $2 million signing bonus and starter money for the next two years over a four-year deal. Apparently, incentives can increase the deal to $14 million. No word yet on when the bulk of the incentives apply, which is key for determining what the Steelers plan for the future.

A $2 million signing bonus over a four-year deal is relatively small, particularly for a quarterback. Given this paltry bonus, cutting Maddox will likely be cap-wise as soon as the 2004 season ends.

Simply put, Maddox will have to play his way to the big payday.

The preliminary numbers indicate a strong belief in Ben Roethlisberger taking the reins of the team sooner rather than later. That should not come as a surprise to anyone following the Steelers.

Linebackers Kendrell Bell and James Farrior appear to be next in line for remuneration. Farrior's windfall is likely indicative of the Steelers' need for some experience and leadership on a starting defense that will get quite young over the next two seasons. But the Steelers need to be wary of the infamous "contract-3", which has come back to haunt them quite recently, namely DeWayne Washington and Jason Gildon.

When Farrior's game starts to slip, it will likely go downhill fast.

Locking up Bell will ensure a youthful presence on the inside (though, even with the extension of Farrior, the Steelers are thin at the position). Bell is a core member of this defense, which is further comprised of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Joey Porter. Retaining Farrior will allow the Steelers to chase an upgrade at right defensive end and left outside linebacker next off-season.

Clark Haggans will receive just one season to prove he can man the OLB position, across from Porter. Ideally, at least from the standpoint of the front office, Alonzo Jackson will shake off his rookie blues and prove why the Steelers drafted him in the second round of the 2003 draft, allowing the Steelers to focus on upgrading Kimo VonOelhoffen's position.

As for the defensive backfield, the Steelers are casting a wide net this off-season. The recent signings of CB Willie Williams and S Ainsley Battles clearly indicate some anxiety about the big youth movement in the secondary.

Williams will help mentor the prize youngsters: Ricardo Colclough and Ike Taylor. Williams understands what Dick LeBeau wants to do and will help all the cornerbacks get on the same page. The Steelers hope to have Taylor and Colclough ready to start by the 2005 season. If things start badly in Pittsburgh, they may start even sooner than that.

Clearly, the Steelers have grown as tired of Chad Scott's antics as the fans have. Perhaps Cowher's desire to draft a cornerback in the first round of the 2004 draft would allow us to conclude that there was some thought to cutting Scott sooner rather than later. However, the inexperience at both safety positions would likely preclude Cowher from making such a bold move.

Bringing back Battles should provide a hedge at the safety position. Actually, the signing of Battles points to more use of the three-safety nickel package. If the injury-prone Mike Logan goes down again, the Steelers may be reluctant to turn to youngster Russell Stuvaints.

At the very least, Battle's presence in camp will keep Stuvaints guessing about his ability to secure a roster spot.

As for the thorn in every Steeler fan's side, Plaxico Burress, the front office had to make a choice between Bell and Burress, in terms of extension. Burress made the choice easy when he made all the waves by not reporting to mini-camp and the coaching sessions.

Trading Burress would be ideal, but highly unlikely. Once again, most teams probably already know that the Steelers will let Burress test the waters of free agency at the end of the season, creating a draft priority at the wide out position come April of 2005.

If last season is any indication, the running game is the more important issue for the offense. Maddox cannot beat the cover-2 scheme and a potent running attack is the easiest way to solve this problem. Burress is effective again if Duce Staley has a breakout season.

Come late July, Burress will be back in camp and, unfortunately, the offense will look much the same as it did in 2003. All the eggs are in the basket of a healthy offensive line.

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