Free Agency 2003: Part I - Safety

It was no secret to other teams or casual observers that the weakest link of the Steelers last season was their safeties.<br><br> Free safety Brent Alexander and strong safety Lee Flowers are both on the wrong side of 30 and lack the range to help in pass coverage. As a result, the corners - just average players themselves - were left on their own most of the time, something that hurt the team all season long.

Flowers is an unrestricted free agent and won't return, while Alexander could be moved aside if the Steelers are able to find an adequate replacement.

Veteran Mike Logan could be the team's starting free safety next season, but suffered a severe knee injury in the team's playoff win over Cleveland that will keep him out of offseason workouts.

Rookie Chris Hope, the team's third-round pick in last year's draft, will likely get the first opportunity to replace Flowers after spending the 2002 season as a special teams ace.

If it's a free safety the Steelers go after in free agency, there are several good options available. Arizona's Kwame Lassiter, New England's Tebucky Jones, and Tampa Bay's Dexter Jackson are the top free safeties available.

The 6-0, 202-pound Lassiter has been a good ballhawk during his 8-year career, but is on the downside of his career. He may have one or two good seasons left, but would only open the team up to future salary cap problems unless he would be willing to sign a shorter deal for a shot at a Super Bowl.

Jones has excellent size (6-2, 218) and has very good speed. He's not been the most consistent player, but the former No. 1 draft pick would certainly be an upgrade for the Steelers.

The 6-1, 203-pound Jackson picked off two passes in the Super Bowl, earning MVP honors. He's not especially fast, but he proved to be a good playmaker for the Bucs in his first season as a starter this year, making four interceptions and 2.5 sacks during the regular season.

At strong safety, Houston's Eric Brown, Jacksonville's Donovin Darius, New Orleans' Sammy Knight, and the Giants' Omar Stoutmire are the top available players.

Brown (6-0, 210) is a tough player who has experience playing in the 3-4 defense, after spending the season with Houston. Brown played much of this season with torn cartilage in his shoulder, however, and will likely need surgery to repair the damage. Whether that scares teams away from signing him remains to be seen, but Houston wants him back desperately.

The 6-1, 215-pound Darius is a popular pick among Steelers fans to bring in because they are familiar with him from his days with the Jaguars. A Pro Bowl alternate this season, Darius is strong against the run, but only so-so in coverage. In fact, he may just be a younger, faster version of Flowers. But Darius has had good games against the Steelers in the past and that could be enough for head coach Bill Cowher, who often likes to sign players who have played well against his teams in the past.

Knight has been a Pro Bowl player and is a strong playmaker, but it's unlikely the Saints will let him walk away without anything in return, especially given the state of their defense. Knight could get a franchise or transition tag.

The 5-11, 198-pound Stoutmire is a solid tackler who throws his body around with reckless abandon and can be a force in the passing game, smacking receivers coming over the middle. Stoutmire may not have the name recognition of some of the others, but may be the kind of player the Steelers need at the strong safety position if they don't feel Hope is ready.

Two other players to keep an eye on are strong safety Rodney Harrison of San Diego and Oakland free safety Rod Woodson. Both are definitely at the tail end of their careers and could be cut as salary cap casualties. Both are also favorites of Cowher, even if they would only be rented for a year or two.

(Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles that will take a position-by-position look at free agency, which will begin Feb. 28, and how it pertains to the Steelers.)

--Dale Lolley

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