Where do Steelers go from here?

Just two days after saying the Steelers were the favorite to sign him because he liked their style of defense and wanted an opportunity to win, safety Dexter Jackson instead signed with the Arizona Cardinals. He must not have liked winning that much.

Jackson, the MVP of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl victory over Oakland earlier this year, agreed to a five-year, $14-million deal with the Cardinals that included a $2.75 million signing bonus.

Earlier this week, the Steelers thought they had a deal with Jackson, who had all but accepted a reported five-year, $12.25 million contract offer that included a $2.75 million signing bonus.

But the Cardinals kept putting more money into their deal, giving him the opportunity to make $9.5 million during first three years. That was something the Steelers just could not match. And that's a good thing.

If there is one thing teams should have learned over past few years, it is that you don't overpay for certain positions and safety is one of them.

Certainly there are exceptions to that rule, but Jackson isn't worthy of that status. He is good but not great player and there would have been no way the Steelers could have justified paying him almost $3 million per season.

The question for the Steelers now is where do they go from here?

Jackson would have added some much-needed speed to the Steelers defense at the safety position. He would have replaced Brent Alexander as the team's free safety and given the Steelers two new starting safeties in 2003. Strong safety Lee Flowers is an unrestricted free agent and the team has made no effort to re-sign him.

Head coach Bill Cowher and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis were reportedly in attendance at the University of Southern California's workout day Wednesday. USC just happens to have one of best safeties available in this year's draft, Troy Polamalu. All Polamalu did was snap off a 4.37 forty and a 4.06 shuttle time.

If they are unable to land a free agent safety, selecting one in the first round of the draft would almost become a necessity. But the Steelers will continue to explore their options in free agency.

They entertained free agent Eric Brown last week, but chose instead to make an offer to Jackson. Brown, a strong safety, may be their fallback option.

There is also the possibility that Jacksonville or New England may pull the franchise designation off of safeties Donovin Darius and Tebucky Jones, respectively, if they are unable to trade them. If a team pulls its franchise designation off a player, that player becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Darius, a Pro Bowl alternate at strong safety last season, would be especially intriguing to the Steelers. While he's not great in coverage, he's more than adequate and is a heavy hitter who plays the run well. He would certainly be an upgrade over Flowers.

The Steelers restructured the contracts of guard Alan Faneca and defensive end Aaron Smith earlier this week to free up nearly $3 million in cap space. That was the money they were going to use to sign Jackson. Now, maybe the Steelers will use that money to make a run at Darius, the player they coveted heading into free agency to begin with.

Dale Lolley

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