UFA: Ross to leave; Reed to stay; salaries slashed

One by one, they're preparing to leave town.<br><br> NFL free agency starts today and it appears the Steelers will lose all of their eligible full-time starters.<br><br> Plaxico Burress? He's too expensive - at least at the moment.

Kendrell Bell? The team re-signed, Larry Foote, Bell's injury replacement last season, to a five-year deal yesterday.

Keydrick Vincent? Bill Cowher already said Kendall Simmons will return to start at right guard. Oliver Ross? His agent doesn't expect the right tackle to return, either.

"I think the Steelers would like to keep him," said Alan Herman. "But I think they made a commitment a few years ago in how they drafted."

The commitment was made last year when the Steelers drafted tackle Max Starks in the third round. Starks was just a shot in the dark at the time, but his play as a short-yardage tight end impressed Cowher.

"I'm very excited about Max Starks," Cowher said at his end-of-season press conference. "Coming out, the word on Max was that he was a soft player. He was just a big guy. Well I'm glad someone told him that. He proved that is not his problem. This guy came in and he was a pleasant surprise."

Starks came to the team as a 6-foot-7, 337-pound pass blocker from the University of Florida, but flashed drive-blocking skills in the Steelers's short-yardage situations. He added at least 10 pounds during the season, and would like to add another 10 this off-season.

Cowher, with a few exceptions, prefers to not bring back former starters as back-ups, but he may not even have the option with Ross, who's drawing interest from other teams, according to Herman.

"I think Oliver will have quite a few teams bidding for his services, based on the inquiries I've received," he said. "Not that anyone's tampering, because no one has talked contract specifics, but I've been doing this for 20 years and I understand the interest, based on teams making initial requests for phone numbers and things like that.

"Once Oliver gets out to free agency, the likelihood is he will not return to Pittsburgh and will find another place to play."

Ross started all 16 games at right tackle last season, and showed improvement over an inconsistent 2003 season, his first as a full-time starter.

Willie Williams is the fifth and last Steelers's starter expected to become a free agent today, but he wasn't a starter entering the 2004 season.

Williams signed with the Steelers last May 26 as a back-up, but replaced an injured Chad Scott at mid-season and played well enough to keep the job once Scott returned.

The Steelers released Scott last week and may be interested in re-signing Williams, even if they plan to promote either Ricardo Colclough or Ike Taylor to the starting cornerback position. Williams's agent did not return phone calls yesterday.

The Steelers have six restricted free agents and re-signed one, Foote, yesterday to a $13.43 million contract that includes a $3.25 million signing bonus. He's expected to start at the mack inside linebacker position.

The only other full-time starter entering restricted free agency is Chris Hope, and his agent expects Hope to re-sign with the team as well.

"It looks promising that he'll be around," said Bralyn Bennett. "He wants to be around; they want him around. That's the important thing: Both sides want the same thing."

Bennett said negotiations with the Steelers haven't progressed past "setting parameters" but that "once things get serious I'm looking forward to making it a quick process."

Restricted free agents Verron Haynes (5th round), Lee Mays (6th) and Brett Keisel (7th) were, like Hope (3rd), offered the low tender ($656,000).

If the Steelers fail to match a contract offered to any of those four players by another team, by the April 15 deadline, they'd receive a draft pick commensurate with the draft round in which the player entered the league.

The Steelers avoided that problem with undrafted kicker Jeff Reed, a restricted free agent who was offered the middle tender of $1.43 million. That tender forces a team to compensate the Steelers with a first-round draft pick should they sign Reed.

"We'd talked before the period started and couldn't come to an agreement, so we put it on hold," said Reed's agent, Donald Henderson. "They don't want Jeff to end up counting that much against the cap, so I expect once they get through some of the other stuff that we'll get back to negotiations."

Last night, NFLPA.org, reported the Steelers had restructured the contracts of Jeff Hartings, Duce Staley and Clark Haggans. All three players, according to the site, will be paid minimum wage this season. At top end, the moves would save the Steelers approximately $6.5 million in cap space. Team officials were not available for comment.


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