Steelers bracing for the storm

The Steelers have never been big players in free agency, preferring instead to sign low-tier players after the initial smoke clears. But there may be some players available they want to make early moves on.

When the clock strikes midnight Friday, the 2009 NFL season officially begins as the free agent period opens.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, it will be the first task in defending their Super Bowl title.

Like previous Super Bowl champions, the Steelers expect to have some free agent losses. It's common for winning teams to see their rosters raided because opponents value their free agents above others.

Considering the Steelers' free agents have been members of two Super Bowl winners, they'll likely be targeted. So the Steelers are bracing for some losses, most likely cornerback Bryant McFadden, guard Chris Kemoeatu and wide receiver Nate Washington.

"It only takes one team to accelerate the price," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said at the NFL combine in Indianapolis last week.

"It doesn't take a great market If one team has a sincere interest and you're not able to match (the offer), you're probably going to lose that player."

Teams must be below the NFL's salary cap, expected to rise to $123 million for next season. After putting the franchise tag on left tackle Max Starks last week – at a cost of $8.5 million – the Steelers have between $11 and $12 million in cap space remaining.

They must tender offer sheets to their restricted free agents, including starting right tackle Willie Colon, another move that will eat up cap space.

The Steelers could regain some of that cap space by signing Starks to a long-term deal, but they also are working on an extension with linebacker James Harrison, who is entering the final season of his contract.

"He's a great player that we want to lock up," Colbert said of the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "He's earned it. He's earned a chance to finish his career here, and we certainly want him to do that."

As usual, the Steelers aren't expected to be big spenders in free agency. They tend to look at mid-level players to help fill the roster.

If the Steelers lose McFadden, they may look to Leigh Bodden, released by Detroit after Cleveland traded him to the Lions last season, or Tennessee's Chris Carr as a possible replacement.

Both would be relatively inexpensive and have starting experience. Carr also is an excellent return man.

Heading into his second season, 2008 second-round draft pick Limas Sweed could help ease the loss of Washington. But the Steelers may want to bring in a veteran to compete with Sweed for the No. 3 spot.

New Orleans' speedster Devery Henderson, San Francisco's Bryant Johnson, Detroit's Mike Furrey or Tampa Bay's Michael Clayton could do that.

If they are unable to work something out with Kemoeatu, who replaced Alan Faneca in 2008 at left guard after he left in free agency, there are also some options there. Cincinnati's Stacy Andrews, coming off a knee injury, could be one, as could Seattle's Floyd Womack.

One player they won't likely be interested in is Indianapolis' Jeff Saturday, who will be 34 in June. Just because his agent is trying to drum up interest doesn't mean the Steelers are biting.

If the Steelers decide to dip into the restricted free agent market – something they've never done – there are two interesting prospects.

Washington defensive lineman Kedric Golston is a 6-4, 298-pound defensive tackle who has produced well for the Redskins – who are loading up cap space to take a run at Albert Haynesworth. The 25-year-old was a sixth-round draft pick, so it will be interesting to see how he's tendered.

A more expensive option would be New Orleans guard Jahri Evans. Evans, a former fourth-round pick out of Bloomsburg, has started 48 consecutive games for the Saints. But New Orleans is expected to give him a high tender.

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.

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