Steelers free agent period is set to begin

With Kendrell Bell set to be an unrestricted free agent, the Steelers couldn't afford to lose linebacker Larry Foote. <br><br> And they didn't, as Steelers and Foote agreed to a new five-year deal Tuesday, the day before the NFL's free agent period began. <br><br>

Foote, who was slated to become a restricted free agent, started all 16 games in 2004 and both playoff games after replacing Bell, who missed all but parts of three games with multiple injuries. Foote recorded 78 tackles and three sacks last season.

A fourth-round draft pick in 200, Foote is the first of the team's restricted free agents to re-sign. The team also has made qualifying offers to running back Verron Haynes, safety Chris Hope, defensive end Brett Keisel, wide receiver Lee Mays and kicker Jeff Reed.

With the NFL's free agency period set to begin at midnight Tuesday night, the Steelers face the proposition of losing a starting wide receiver, the 2001 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and the entire right side of their offensive line.

Yet the Steelers aren't expected to be a major player on the free-agent market and will instead look internally and to the draft to fill most of their needs.

The Steelers don't have the salary cap space needed to shop for a big-name free agent as they did last year when they signed running back Duce Staley, who was considered the best available player at his position.

After restructuring the contracts of Jerome Bettis and James Farrior, and releasing Chad Scott and Jay Riemersma over the weekend, the Steelers are about $3 million under the league's 2005 salary cap of $85.5 million.

That won't be enough money to sign wide receiver Plaxico Burress, Bell or offensive linemen Oliver Ross and Keydrick Vincent. All are expected to sign elsewhere, with Burress and Bell likely to strike deals with new teams as early as this week.

Cornerback Willie Williams, who started the final 10 regular-season games and both postseason contests after Scott was injured, is also a free agent. But the 35-year-old Williams is unlikely to get many offers and the Steelers should be able to re-sign him, if they choose.

Burress is the biggest free agent for the Steelers. The 6-5, 228-pound receiver is expected to be a hot commodity as a free agent on a market that also includes Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Joey Galloway.

Muhsin Muhammed, released by Carolina last week, quickly signed a six-year deal with Chicago that included a signing bonus of $12 million, perhaps setting the bar for wide receivers out of the Steelers' price range. Because he was released by Carolina, Muhammed did not need to wait for the free-agent period to begin before signing with a new team.

If they do not replace Burress in free agency, Antwaan Randle El will be counted upon to step into the starting lineup, something he did last season when Burress missed four games. The Steelers will then select a wide receiver in the first few rounds of the draft to help ease Burress' loss.

Vincent started all 16 games at right guard last season after Kendall Simmons suffered a knee injury during training camp. Simmons is expected to be 100 percent by mini-camp in June, making Vincent expendable.

Ross, meanwhile, was the starting right tackle the past two seasons. But the Steelers selected Max Starks in the third round of last year's draft and he's expected to move into the lineup after impressing as an extra blocker in short-yardage situations.

The Steelers wouldn't mind bringing back Ross as a backup, but aren't going to overpay to do so.

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