Only one of the Steelers' 22 starters has a contract that expires when the fiscal year begins in March, and only one other starter is expected to retire or be cut due to his contract.
Moving forward, the Steelers remain a talented and young football team, but of course there are cracks. So let's examine the state of the Steelers following their 6-2 finish to the 2006 season.
QUARTERBACK: Ben Roethlisberger ended his worst pro season by promising to work harder with his receivers this off-season and to have a better understanding of the offense. That statement, following the last home game, was the first acknowledgement by Roethlisberger that rumors of his lazy work habits might be true. Teammates complained privately about the coaching staff coddling Roethlisberger and wished the quarterback would watch more film. It's expected that the poor results this season will inspire Roethlisberger, and his post-Ravens game admission was a good sign. If restricted free agent Brian St. Pierre remains with the team as expected, the backups will be in place and the team won't have to waste another fifth-round draft pick for some other team's practice squad.
RUNNING BACK: Dick Hoak coached three undrafted players and a street free-agent on a run-oriented team that finished 6-2. It should've made him Assistant Coach of the Year, but Hoak retired and the Steelers must add a high draft pick to the mess they have at the position. They don't need a first-round draft pick with Willie Parker around, but look for a player such as Tony Hunt of Penn State to land with the Steelers in the second round this April. Najeh Davenport can become one of the team's few unrestricted free agents in March and the Steelers are expected to re-sign him.
RECEIVERS: Santonio Holmes blossomed into a first-team split end by season's end. He's a legitimate deep threat and fine complement to Hines Ward, who'll turn 31 before next season. Ward has taken (and given) a physical pounding over the years, but he possesses a hearty appetite for working out and he expects to produce at a high level for the next four or five years. Ward showed late this season that he still has the speed to turn singles into doubles and triples. Cedrick Wilson will be the No. 3 man next season. The No. 4 man, Nate Washington, must show a better understanding of the offense, improve his chemistry with Roethlisberger and toughen up. Willie Reid expects to return next season, but can't be counted upon since he's coming off a serious foot injury. Expect the Steelers to draft a receiver on the second day as insurance for Washington and/or Reid. At tight end, the Steelers are still looking for a No. 3 behind Heath Miller and Jerame Tuman.
OFFENSIVE LINE: If Russ Grimm becomes head coach, he'll make the changes the last head coach wouldn't allow him to make as line coach. For one, Grimm wanted use Willie Colon or Trai Essex to light a fire under right tackle Max Starks. An injury to Starks allowed Colon to play the final two games anyway, and he played well enough to allow the Steelers to offer the low tender to Starks in restricted free agency. That means another team would lose a third-round draft pick if the Steelers don't match an offer for Starks. If Starks does return, the Steelers believe Colon will motivate Starks. Right guard has also been a problem. Kendall Simmons doesn't provide much push in the run game, but powerful backup Chris Kemoeatu lacks some basic understanding at the position. That's the bug in any plan of moving Simmons to center this spring. Jeff Hartings is expected to retire, so Chukky Okobi and Marvin Philip will compete at center, and some in the organization believe Simmons would make a better center than either and hope he is moved. Alan Faneca will enter the final year of his contract and turns 31 in December. Marvel Smith had a disappointing season but remains the best tackle on the team.
LINEBACKERS: That same sentence about Smith can be used for Joey Porter. While reporters continue to believe Porter will be let go before the season for contract reasons, he remains the team's best outside linebacker. On the flip side, it's doubtful Porter would hold out for an extension since his base salary jumps to $4 million (plus a $1 million roster bonus in March) this year. Expect Porter, who turns 30 in March, to play out his contract and test free agency in 2008. The team's other outside backer, Clark Haggans, turns 30 on Wednesday. He's also coming off a disappointing season and also enters the final season of his contract. James Harrison is a quality backup and Arnold Harrison is a special-teamer. It all adds up to the Steelers selecting an outside linebacker with their first pick. However, the college pickings must improve dramatically (i.e. a top junior must turn pro early; are you listening Keith Rivers?). Inside, James Farrior, who turned 32 on Saturday, continues to play at a high level, but Larry Foote turned in a lackluster season. Help is also needed there.
DEFENSIVE LINE: If Hoak wasn't the team's top assistant, John Mitchell was. His unit was superb again last season. Aaron Smith deserved to join Casey Hampton in the Pro Bowl and Brett Keisel offers rare speed at the end position. Smith turns 31 in April and is entering the final year of his contract, as are backups Chris Hoke and Travis Kirschke. The other backup, Rodney Bailey, can become a free agent in March. The long-range prospects shouldn't be ignored here.
SECONDARY: The solid game turned in by corner Ike Taylor in the finale should provide a needed boost to his confidence. Taylor hopes it will help him regain his job opposite Bryant McFadden, who came on strong the second half of the season. Deshea Townsend will turn 32 before next season and will likely be the nickel back over Ricardo Colclough, who's already working on his comeback. On paper, the cornerback position appears set, but ask Carson Palmer where to attack the Steelers. He'll tell you to attack the Steelers' secondary, and he might be right. A cornerback such as Darrelle Revis out of Pitt wouldn't be a bad fall-back pick in the first round if a pass-rusher can't be found. At safety, rookie Anthony Smith excited fans with his highlight-reel hits and ball skills, but he blew a coverage in each of the final two games that allowed long touchdown passes. Still, the Steelers are excited about teaming him with Troy Polamalu in the deep patrol next season. Polamalu's first contract expires after this coming season, so extending his contract in the off-season will become the top priority once the head coach is hired. Backup safety Tyrone Carter can become a free agent in March and Mike Logan is expected to retire. The Steelers will try to keep Carter as a reserve at safety with Ryan Clark.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Chris Gardocki will be replaced by a young punter next season. Coverage aces Sean Morey and Chidi Iwuoma can become free agents in March, but with Bill Cowher gone, and teams coach Kevin Spencer (who was rushed from the practice facility with an ulcer during the season) also a question mark, the return of those aces remains in question.