Outside the box

The Steelers are set in their ways. Free agency is usually a low-key affair and starters are found via the draft. Maybe they should mix things up, just this once. Ryan Wilson has some ideas.

I don't have many absolutes in life; It seems like a silly notion when you think about how complex the world is. I could make some political statement about the perils of "going with your gut", or "staying the course," but I left D.C. four months ago, and more importantly, nobody cares what I think on such issues.

In football, though, I do have some loosely held beliefs:

1) Don't draft running backs in the first round because comparable talent can be found later at a fraction of the cost;

2) Tall wide receivers are overrated;

3) Don't overpay aging interior offensive lineman because they're easier to replace than offensive tackles;

4) Stay away from high-priced free agents.

I've been beating this drum for some time, but with the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2007 season in the books, 1) and 2) were topics of discussion in last week's local papers. Kevin Colbert, director of football operations, when asked, said that the Steelers could take a running back with their first-round pick, though that idea seems slightly less ludicrous than re-signing Duce Staley and installing him as the starter (see 4) above).

I don't really believe Colbert when he says this; for one, when's the last time Pittsburgh took a running back in round 1? Two, we never hear from Colbert during the season, but as soon as the focus turns to free agency and the draft, he's magically available to answer questions. Obviously, it's not in the Steelers best interest for Colbert to be forthcoming with answers, and as a result we get a lot of double-talk, half-truths and smokescreens. And I'm fine with that. It's hard enough for the front office to stock a roster with talented players without broadcasting its intentions to the competition.

Knowing that, I'm not so concerned with Colbert's claim that, "heck yeah, absolutely," Pittsburgh would draft a running back with their first pick.

Ben Roethlisberger, sorta like the NFL's version of Punxsutawney Phil, shows up soon after the season ends to announce that he'd love to have a tall receiver, and then disappears for a few weeks. This goes straight to point 2). Look, there's only one Randy Moss and he's not coming to Pittsburgh. Plaxico Burress is having a great year, and I'm genuinely happy for the guy. I thought he got a bum rap during his five-year Steelers career, and I'm psyched he finally gets to go to a Super Bowl. But none of what he's accomplished since joining the Giants makes me think the Steelers should've busted the bank to keep him. He's tall, yes, but also struggles with holding onto the ball, and is still a questionable route runner. I readily admit that when ranking tall wideouts, Burress is behind Moss, but who's behind Burress? I got nothing, which is what I'm getting at about overvaluing height. Some buddies put it to me this way: would you rather have Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, or Ward, Plaxico Burress and the second-round pick the Steelers gave up to get Holmes? Put me down for the latter, please.

And while it's swell that Roethlisberger feels terrible about all the over-the-middle medicine balls he threw to his diminutive stable of pass catchers last season, it's worth pointing out that Ward is 6-0, Nate Washington is 6-1, Heath Miller is 6-5 and Matt Spaeth is 6-7.

Again, I don't expect the Steelers to take a wideout of any size in round 1, so this is moot. And with 6-7 Matt Trannon recently added to the roster, Big Ben's needs are met (I think this falls under "be careful what you ask for") and the Steelers intramural basketball team is primed for an undefeated season.

In general, I'm still against using first-round picks on running backs and overvaluing tall wide receivers. But I'm a little more flexible on points 3) and 4).

After watching the Steelers offensive line bumble through much of the 2007 season, I'm convinced that Alan Faneca is pretty important. In most years, I would just say let him walk, and either pencil Kendall Simmons or Chris Kemoeatu into the lineup. But if the idea is to keep Roethlisberger upright long enough to complete a three-step drop, Faneca is worth the going rate for guards, not matter how exorbitant that going rate might be. Put differently: Why extend Big Ben's deal to make him the highest-paid player in team history if you're going to skimp on protecting him?

Clearly, the salary cap is a consideration, but here's an interesting thought: why can't the Steelers go cash-over-cap to sign Faneca? Teams do it, particularly those turning a healthy profit. If managed properly, it would be a one-time penalty for exceeding the cap ceiling, but the Steelers would keep one of the most important players on the roster, even if he's lost a step. There's no way this happens, but it merits some consideration, I think. The free-agent market for offensive linemen lists Faneca as the best available guard and Max Starks as the best available tackle. When the top two free-agent linemen play for one of the league's worst pass-blocking units that tells you all you need to know about the state of available talent.

Maybe the Steelers don't even have to go over the cap limit to re-sign Faneca, and if not, all the better. But it almost certainly would be a possibility if the team signed a high-priced free agent.

Again, this goes against 4), but if Pittsburgh's going to exceed the cap limit to improve the roster, they should get their money's worth (literally). Consider this:

…[W]ith about $10M more than the Patriots in projected cap space and more players currently under contract, why don't [the Steelers] pull a double-coup and try to steal Asante "Get Paid" Samuel away from the Pats? Is the upfront, *real* bonus money the issue here? Otherwise, why is something like this *completely* impossible, as opposed to merely risky?

I know, I'd get fewer looks that said "so, how long have you been using meth?" if I suggested Jeff Reed should play cornerback next season, and, frankly, I think overpaying for big-name free agents is a bad idea. But how can other teams make it work under the same salary restrictions the Steelers face?

Pittsburgh has a legitimate need for a big-play cornerback. Ike Taylor could be that guy if his hands worked, but it hasn't happened. Deshea Townsend is reliable but teams don't game plan around him. Bryant McFadden is a solid nickel back, but he's seemingly plateaued after three years. I have no idea if Samuel will continue to play at the level he achieved in New England, but there's no reason to think he won't. Nate Clements had a good year on bad San Francisco team and that's after he signed his $80-million deal.

For me, the cognitive dissonance is deafening; this goes against everything I thought I believed about how to build a roster. But sometimes you have to mix things up. That could mean exceeding the salary cap to keep a key player, or splurging on an expensive free agent if he fills an immediate need -- or both.

I'm certain neither will happen, and Faneca will likely walk, Samuels will get his payday somewhere else, and the Steelers will do what they always do: lay low in free agency, add depth with low- to mid-level signings, and find future starters through the draft. That blueprint works, no doubt, but sometimes the situation dictates more immediate action. And in this case, the 2008 Steelers schedule suggests loading up now because drafting an offensive lineman in April with the plan to ease him into the starting lineup in 2009 does nobody any good next season. Especially Ben Roethlisberger.

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