Breakdown: Plans on future free agents

The Steelers could have as many as 11 unrestricted free agents next March. With three of those 11 fighting for a roster spot, here's what Jim Wexell learned about the other eight.

LATROBE – The Laurel Highlands have become a vacation spot of sorts for the Steelers' front office. The team is not involved in talks with any of their eight players who could become unrestricted free agents next March.

One player – James Farrior – drew a "maybe" response from a front-office source, who said the Steelers will also begin to assess Chris Kemoeatu's value now that he's off the PUP list and running first-team left guard. But the Steelers are taking a definite wait-and-see approach with the rest:

* Marvel Smith turns 30 today and the Steelers want to see how his back and neck hold up this preseason before making any kind of bid prior to the opener (the Steelers, of course, don't negotiate during the season). Mike Tomlin held Smith out of Monday's practice, but re-emphasized Tuesday that his back "has not been an issue at all" this camp.

Smith is probably the most important of this group since he plays left tackle and rookie Tony Hills is miles away from playing at a playoff level.

* Bryant McFadden turns 27 in November and the No. 3 cornerback would become a premier free agent next March. Yet, the Steelers say they won't throw big money at a player who doesn't start for them.

It's also been theorized that the Steelers have no chance to extend McFadden's contract since he has switched to super-agent Drew Rosenhaus, but the Steelers say they like dealing with Rosenhaus. Of course, Rosenhaus will be quick to point out that McFadden started nine games in the 8-8 2006 season and the Steelers were 6-3 in those games. He'll also point out that division rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati rely heavily on 3-wide offenses.

Cornerback Ike Taylor once gave the Steelers a hometown discount because he loves the organization. Would McFadden do the same? Or does he look at it as strictly a business?

"It's both for me," McFadden said. "This is the team that drafted me and I love everything about it, as far as the football atmosphere, and the players, the coaches, the chemistry, the togetherness as a team. That's something that's very important. But, like you say, it's a business and you've got to really do what's best for you when that time comes. It's 50-50 how you look at it, so you just leave it in God's hands."

The last Steelers free agent to "leave it in God's hands" was Antwaan Randle El, who signed with the Washington Redskins after the Super Bowl season.

* Nate Washington turns 25 in three weeks, but has yet to play up to his potential. The Steelers will wait until next March to make a decision on their No. 3 wide receiver. They'll have enough leverage then because rookie Limas Sweed is expected to move up in status next year, if not sooner.

* Max Starks turns 27 in January, but an extension would be a mathematical impossibility since he'll make nearly $7 million this year.

* Trai Essex turns 26 in December, but the reserve OT/OG is in the same position as Washington. If they lose him next March, oh well.

* Charlie Batch turns 34 in December. The Steelers feel that if he remains productive and healthy, they'll be able to re-sign the native Pittsburgher next March.

As for Farrior, he turns 34 in January. While it's debatable that he's lost a step over the years, there's no debating his importance to the team. Farrior remains the Steelers' best coverage linebacker and one of their core leaders. The scenario for a Farrior extension might be a two-year deal with a bit of a hometown discount. When that scenario was put forth to Farrior, he said, "That sounds about right."


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