The draft likely will be Pittsburgh Steelers' sole source of new talent this year, if the first few weeks of free agency have anything to say about it.
Using the philosophy they have been consistent with over the years, the Steelers signed no outside players in free agency, concentrating on signing their own although even that was not going all that well early. They lost wide receiver Nate Washington to Tennessee and starting cornerback Bryant McFadden to the Arizona Cardinals. That leaves them with needs at both positions.
Only Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes have experience as wide receivers with Limas Sweed picking up precious little time as a rookie last season, although he likely will become No. 3 this year unless something else occurs. They need to restock that position. The Steelers did negotiate with veteran Joey Galloway, who had been released by Tampa Bay, before he signed with the New England Patriots.
William Gay, who alternated every two series with McFadden at left cornerback last season, becomes their starter and they still have Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and Fernando Bryant at that position. But they need to add at least one there as well.
Even though they've kept starters Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu and Willie Colon for 2009, they need to pick up some young linemen in the draft. They did also re-sign their own unrestricted free agent Trai Essex, who can play guard and tackle.
Twice, now, they've had conversations with Penn State center A.Q. Shipley, a Pittsburgh area native. They talked to him at the combine and also entertained him at their complex in March. They also had Pitt center C.J. Davis and linebacker Scott McKillop over for a visit. None of the three counts against their 30-man limit of college visits to Pittsburgh.
NEWS AND NOTES
--The Steelers could have three more investors approved by the NFL at league meetings next week. Three others were previously approved in the team's restructuring of ownership.
--President Obama nominated Steelers chairman Dan Rooney to become U.S. ambassador to Ireland. It would obviously remove him from the daily operations of the club and leave his son, team president Art Rooney II, truly in charge.
"I don't believe Dan would be able to take on these new responsibilities if his son Art wasn't already a Super Bowl-winning club president. If approved, it would be a new round for us because we've had land developers and former players and oilmen as owners but we've never had a U.S. Ambassador as a club owner," said Joe Browne, the NFL's executive vice president of communications.
--Mike Tomlin, the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl at age 36, will receive Pittsburgh's Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year in two weeks. It's the highest honor bestowed on a Western Pennsylvania sports figure annually.
--If the NFL owners pass it at their meeting next week, a new rule might well be called the Hines Ward Rule.
A rule to eliminate a blind-side block to the head of a defender will be proposed at the league meetings which begin Sunday in Dana Point, Calif. It was just such a block that Ward threw in October that broke the jaw of rookie linebacker Keith Rivers in Cincinnati.
"It's one of several plays we looked at, that's correct," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "Under this year's rules, that was a legal hit, but we're trying to advance our player safety."
TEAM NEEDS/OFFSEASON STRATEGY
The Steelers lost three free agents since free agency began - wide receiver Nate Washington, cornerback Bryant McFadden and safety Anthony Smith. They have signed no free agents other than their own. They signed eight free agents in one form or another including four offensive linemen: Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Willie Colon and Trai Essex. They also kept tight end/fullback Sean McHugh, cornerback Fernando Bryant and linebackers Andre Frazier and Arnold Harrison. They'd like to ultimately sign a veteran free agent wide receiver to compete with Limas Sweed for the No. 3 spot and add depth.
1. Offensive line: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, sacked 139 times the past three seasons, needs some protection, and their ground game sunk to 23rd in the NFL last season, second-lowest in their AFC history. They've ignored the position far too long. Of their starters, only Max Starks was drafted by them in the first three rounds. Starks signed his franchise tender this year, but there are no guarantees after that. While they kept Starks, Kemoeatu, Colon and Essex, they have little depth and no one to push their starters. They need a young tackle and/or guard.
2. Wide receiver: Losing UFA Nate Washington to the Titans means they have two experienced players at the position, Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward, who turns 33 in March. Limas Sweed, who played little as a rookie, moves up to No. 3. There are no prospects beyond them.
3. Defensive line: Everyone's getting old and they have not really addressed this position in years. Five of their top six linemen will be over 30 and while the front three look good, they need someone getting ready to play in the next year or two at end and nose tackle. No one on their team is a legit starter at end behind Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel.
INSIDE THE WAR ROOM
The Steelers have given no indication what they want in the draft other than their frequent dalliance with Penn State center A.Q. Shipley, who is a middle-round prospect. Director of football operations Kevin Colbert has been known to trade up in the first round to get the player he's targeting and he could do that again, particularly if that player is a cornerback like Darius Butler of Connecticut or wide receiver like Florida's Percy Harvin.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: OT Max Starks: Tendered at $8.451M; signed tender Feb. 23.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: QB Charlie Batch wants to return as Ben Roethlisberger's backup. The team wants him back. … P Mitch Berger punted poorly and will not receive an offer because Daniel Sepulveda will return from injury. … LB Keyaron Fox was a valuable special teams player they would like to re-sign. … QB Byron Leftwich did a nice job and is now ready to compete somewhere else to start. … DE Orpheus Roye completed his 13th season by mainly being inactive on game day and he likely will not be re-signed. … OT Marvel Smith, their longtime starter on the left side, played only the first five games and then had his second back surgery in one calendar year. He is seeing if there is a market for his services. … TE Jon Dekker (not tendered as ERFA) was on injured reserve.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: CB Anthony Madison (tendered at $1.01M with no compensation) was one of their best special teams players.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: G Jeremy Parquet was a backup who played little.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: CB Fernando Bryant: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown. … OT Willie Colon: RFA; $2.198M/1 yr. … FB Carey Davis: ERFA; terms unknown. … OT Trai Essex: UFA; $1.94M/2 yrs, $500,000 SB. … LB Andre Frazier: UFA; $1.375M/2 yrs, $125,000 SB; 2009 cap: $687,500. … LB Arnold Harrison: Not tendered as RFA; 1 yr, terms unknown. … OG Chris Kemoeatu: UFA; $20M/5 yrs, $3.885M SB/$6M guaranteed. … TE/FB Sean McHugh; RFA; (tendered at $1.01M with seventh-round pick as compensation); $2.57M/3 yrs, $390,000 SB. … OT Max Starks: FFA; $8.451M/1 yr.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: RB Stefan Logan: FA CFL; terms unknown. … WR Brandon Williams: FA; terms unknown.
PLAYERS LOST: LB Mike Humpal (released/failed physical). … CB Bryant McFadden: UFA Cardinals; $10M/2 yrs, $1M RB/$5M guaranteed. … OG Kendall Simmons (released/failed physical). … S Anthony Smith: Not tendered as RFA/Packers; $1.485M/2 yrs, $100,000 RB. … WR Nate Washington: UFA Titans; terms unknown.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.