Steelers Have Few Priorities in FA This Year

With the 2003 free agency period set to begin at midnight Friday, don't expect to see as much action in the first few hours as we have seen in past years.<br> <br> Teams just don't have a lot of money to throw around and they've figured out that signing a bunch of stars from other teams isn't the best way to go in free agency.

The Steelers head into the free agent period with several key players ready to become available to the highest bidder. The team has already opened negotiations with the agents for backup quarterback Charlie Batch, tight end Jerame Tuman, and fullback Dan Kreider and have made them their priority.

Batch would be brought back to serve as the No. 2 quarterback behind Tommy Maddox, moving up to replace Kordell Stewart. But he could draw interest elsewhere as a starter, although at this point there does not appear to be any team that has singled him out as their next starting QB.

The trouble with bringing back Batch, however, is that the Steelers may have to enter a bidding war for his services. And since Maddox's contract may be the best deal since the Indians sold Manhattan for some beads, that would not be a good thing. They don't want to pay their backup more than their starter.

Tuman could also garner some interest on the free agent market. Tuman has never really been the receiving threat the Steelers pictured him as when they drafted him, but he's made enough plays to show his value. He's also become a much better blocker over the years and still has some upside. If the Steelers lose him, selecting a tight end early in this year's draft will become a priority.

As for Kreider, his situation is a little different. As a restricted free agent, the Steelers can match any offers made to him. Add to that the fact that this is a strong free agent year for fullbacks, and it is unlikely he will be playing anywhere else next season.

In addition to those three free agents, the Steelers have a number of players set to test the open market, most of whom they have no interest in re-signing.

Left tackle Wayne Gandy will likely be the first Steelers player to sign elsewhere, as he is probably the best player available at his position who does not carry the franchise tag. The Steelers realize this and aren't going to get into a bidding match for the 32-year-old tackle. Miami is said to be extremely interested.

Strong safety Lee Flowers had a difficult season in 2002 as he was asked to play more coverage than ever before and proved incapable of doing it.

Flowers' aggressive run-stopping play perfectly fit the Steelers' defense in the past, but with teams refusing to run the ball against them this year, Flowers became a major liability. In a defense that has two good cover corners and a free safety that can run, Flowers could still be a plus. But his days in Pittsburgh are over.

Finding a veteran free agent safety to fill Flowers spot will be a priority for the Steelers.

The team feels 2002 third-round draft choice Chris Hope may be ready to move into that spot, but it would also like to look at a possible upgrade to aging free safety Brent Alexander. Add into the equation top backup Mike Logan's devastating knee injury in the playoffs against Cleveland and there are some definite questions at the position.

Players the Steelers will look at include Cincinnati's Cory Hall, New Orleans' Sammy Knight, and Tampa Bay's Dexter Jackson. The Steelers' final 'high-profile' free agent this year is backup outside linebacker Clark Haggans, whom the team would like to have back, but only at the right price.

Haggans showed some promise early in the 2002 season as a rush end in the dime defense. But after a fast start, Haggans tailed off badly in the second half. He still finished with a career-high 6.5 sacks, however, and may get some interest on the open market.

If Haggans goes, it would leave the Steelers painfully thin at the outside linebacker.

The Steelers' other unrestricted free agents are wide receiver Terance Mathis, and tight ends Marco Battaglia, John Allred, and Matt Cushing - now you see why they want so badly to re-sign Tuman.

Cornerback Hank Poteat and defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy are restricted, although the team would not lose any sleep if either went elsewhere.

Dale Lolley

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