Decisions, decisions

The fiscal new year approaches and we have the logic behind the moves the Steelers should make in the next two weeks. We also have the team's tentative working schedule for 2007. News, assumpions and opinions, oh my!

The NFL's new fiscal year begins March 2, so the Steelers have less than two weeks to get their affairs in order. Here are some of the issues facing the team:

News item: Decision due on Joey Porter's future.

It's possible the Steelers could drop Porter and his 2007 salary of $4 million. But if they pay a March roster bonus of $1 million, he'll stay.

Should they pay $5 million to a 30-year-old pass rusher with bad knees?

Well, the only legitimate replacement on the roster is James Harrison, and he hasn't shown to be consistently better than LOLB Clark Haggans, let alone Porter. The only other player on the depth chart is Arnold Harrison, whose first season was wrecked by a torn ACL.

If the Steelers dump Porter, they'd need a veteran linebacker from the free-agent class. However, the best of the upcoming crop appear unattainable. Lance Briggs, 26, will likely be slapped with a $7.2 million franchise tag by the Chicago Bears. Baltimore's Adalius Thomas, who'll turn 30 by next season, is looking for a signing bonus in the $12 million neighborhood.

A cheaper alternative as a 3-4 (even 4-3) pass rusher is Tully Banta-Cain of the New England Patriots. He's 6-foot-2, 250 pounds and won't turn 27 until August. With a career-high 5.5 sacks last season, he's on the rise as a player and therefore a classic Kevin Colbert target. But the Patriots, at almost $27 million under the cap, can easily keep him.

What's apparent is that the cost of doing business is skyrocketing, so a healthy Porter could be a bargain at $5 million.

News item: The Steelers are in much better cap position than they've ever been heading into a new season.

So proclaims Pittsburgh's preeminent cap scholars, The Burgh Sports Guys. A concise summation at projects the Steelers to be under the 2007 cap by $3.4 million. Included in the number are calculations for Likely To Be Earned bonus balances from 2006 and for 2007, the retirement of Jeff Hartings, future tenders to exclusive-rights and restricted free agents, the expected release (and replacement cost) of Chris Gardocki, $2 million to sign draft picks, players Nos. 52 and 53 (March 2 compliance involves only the top 51 salaries on the roster), and the 2007 practice squad.

But even though the Steelers have more money than they've ever had under the league's current financial structure, they rank near the bottom of the list. Only three teams, according to, will have less available cap space than the Steelers. Twelve teams will have more than $20 million to spend, and another nine teams will have over $12 million. It's a seller's market, so don't expect much participation from the Steelers.

If they do chase a player, and need more cap space, expect them to renegotiate the contracts of Alan Faneca, Aaron Smith and/or Marvel Smith before releasing players such as Porter, Haggans ($2.5 million 2007 salary), Chukky Okobi ($2 million), Cedrick Wilson ($1.9 million), Travis Kirschke ($1.6 million) or Jerame Tuman ($1.2 million). Those players should all be at training camp.

News item: NFL calendar dates fast approaching.

On February 22, the NFL draft combine begins in Indianapolis. This media outlet will be represented and will report on the progress of local college prospects, as well as the players who'll interest the Steelers at the April 28-29 draft.

March 1 is the deadline to make qualifying offers to restricted free agents and retaining offers to exclusive rights free agents. Members of the latter group -- Arnold Harrison, Greg Warren, Nate Washington – can either accept the minimum-wage offer or sit out the season.

The Steelers have only one restricted free agent, Max Starks. The best estimate is the Steelers will offer him the new second-round tender ($1.3 million), which is the second of four tender levels (same round as drafted $850K, first round $1.85M, first and third round $2.35M are the others). The round indicated would be the compensation should the Steelers fail to match another team's offer. The deadline for restricted free agents to sign with another team is April 20.

March 2 marks the start of unrestricted free agency. Steelers eligible for free agency are reserves: Rodney Bailey, Barrett Brooks, Chad Brown, Tyrone Carter, Najeh Davenport, Chidi Iwuoma, Mike Logan, Lee Mays, Sean Morey and Brian St. Pierre.

The Steelers' on-the-field dates are all tentative: April 20-22 first minicamp; May 11-13 second minicamp; May 21-June 14 coaching sessions (OTAs); July 20 training camp.

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