Casey's Curtain Call?

PITTSBURGH – The Steelers lost their 2000 first-round draft pick in free agency last March. They expect to lose their 2001 first-round pick next March, too, particularly if Casey Hampton earns another Pro Bowl berth.

Hampton is waiting in line to renegotiate his contract this off-season. He's in the last year of his contract, but so is Hines Ward, and the Steelers are engaged in talks with Ward.

When Ward's deal – expected to break Steelers' salary records – is done sometime this summer, little money will be available for Hampton, the team's Pro Bowl nose tackle and No. 1 draft pick in 2001.

The Steelers haven't been in contact with Hampton or his agent about an extension. "I guess they're going to take care of Hines and everybody else will just fall into place," said Hampton. "Wherever I fall, I fall."

But even if the Steelers have enough money to extend Hampton's contract, they believe Hampton wants to test the free-agent waters next March. Hampton, though, says no.

"I want to be in Pittsburgh, ain't no question about that," he said. "I know guys who've been in other places, and when they come here they say there's no other place like this, as far as everybody being close and everybody being cool with each other. So I don't want to be nowhere else. We'll just see what happens."

Hampton needs to get healthy first. Following a Pro Bowl appearance in 2003, Hampton reported to training camp in the best shape of his pro career in 2004, but tore an ACL in his right knee at Dallas and missed the last 10 games of the season.

He practiced sparingly at the recent minicamp, and only participated in position drills yesterday, the beginning of the four-week Organized Team Activities (OTAs).

"It's not bothering me," Hampton said of his knee. "Whenever I feel comfortable, I'll get out there and go."

Hampton needs the knee to mend in order for him to lose weight and improve his conditioning. The 6-foot-1 fireplug is listed at 325 pounds, but looks closer to 350. Some are calling him "Casey Hampton Township."

In his typical fashion, Hampton wouldn't reveal his weight.

"It's an undisclosed number," he said with a smile.

Is the target weight within reach?

"Oh, yeah, it's definitely within reach," he said. "That's the easy part, getting my weight to where it needs to be. It's just a matter of me getting in shape and being able to run and all that type of stuff."

Two years ago, Hampton failed his run test at the start of training camp, but went on to make the Pro Bowl.

It was the third consecutive season in which the Steelers allowed opponents less than 4.0 yards per rush, and they stretched the streak to four years last season. But for the first time in those four years, Hampton did not start at nose tackle the majority of the time.

In the six games Hampton started last season, the Steelers allowed 3.9 yards per rush. In the 10 games Chris Hoke started, they allowed 3.4 per rush.

Since Hoke played so well, Hampton said the two will rotate this season, which will allow him to play more on passing downs.

"That was the plan last year, and I was playing a lot more on third down," Hampton said. "The year before last, though, we weren't even dressing a back-up."

With Hampton and Hoke entering the final year of their contracts, the Steelers could run into the same problem in 2006.

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