The Steelers have some choices to make when it comes to retaining players on their current roster. The defense has some key free agents they need to decide to sign or let go as well some other players owed big money in their waning years of their contracts. Here are four players who will become part of that chopping block process, and I’ll predict whether they stay or go.
5. S Troy Polamalu (Age: 31, Yrs: 9)
With a longer than usual recovery from his calf injury, Polamalu sat out most of the season in 2012. For weeks, analysts brought up the ‘Polamalu Factor’ – showing the Steelers record with Polamalu in the lineup and their record without. And, while the advantage always tipped towards the Steelers favor when Polamalu was in the lineup over his nine years in the league, 2012 showed that the Steelers can survive without Polamalu. Last season they went 5-4 in his absence and 3-4 while he was in the lineup. The passing defense was still rated #1 during that time, and the turnover ratio neither worsened or improved with him missing or active. The man who is consistently referred to as the ‘X-Factor’ on this defense is no longer the big impact player he once was. Much like Ed Reed who is waning in his golden years, Polamalu’s contributions a less ‘splashy’ and more of a liability. Numerous fans, including readers here, have called for his removal from the team before it becomes ‘too late,’ and the team pays full salary for a safety who is way past his days of what he was hired to do. Quite frankly, I’m on the fence about Troy. I’ve seen him since his days at USC and enjoy watching that quite mannered man go bat crazy on the field when he launches himself at a player. But that type of nostalgia does not bring home wins. I think his time of being the impact player he once was is over, but I don’t think the Steelers will release him just yet. He has two more years on his contract, and with the safety positions being one of the weaker ones in the backup department for the Steelers, I don’t think the team will get rid of him until they have a few viable replacements. I look to see the Steelers draft a very physical safety in this years draft (and/or move Curtis Brown there). The Steelers may opt to release Troy in his last year so they avoid paying all that cash. And I seriously doubt we will see any kind of extension (even a one year deal) past 2014. But for now in 2013 expect him to hit the field. Status: Keep’m
4. LB James Harrison (Age: 34, Yrs: 10)
Silver Back is quickly showing that he is in his golden years in the NFL. He’s been plagued with injury ever since coming off his phenomenal seasons in ’07 and ’08. This season was evident of how age can really extend the recovery period. Even though Harrison returned early in the season from his knee surgery from last season, it took almost all season long to fully recover. NBC and Cris Collinsworth did a great video breakdown of Harrison’s angle of attack during a Sunday Night game, and you could clearly see the difference between his early return in 2012 and stock footage from 2011. It wasn’t the same, and it was clearly affecting his ability to get around the edge. The Steelers don’t have too many options when it comes to replacing guys like Harrison on the outside. With Jason Worilds as the only option behind LaMarr Woodley and Harrison for the outside, the Steelers need to beef up their LB core. That will probably come with the draft, but as Steeler fans know, it takes time to get the young’ins acclimated to Dick LeBeau’s defense. Harrison is signed through 2014 and has a heft price tag coming up in 2013 and 2014. The Steelers will more than likely restructure his contract to get him through those two seasons. I don’t think they will be letting him go until that contract is up. He is still valuable when he’s on the field, and is still one of the hardest hitting LB’s in the league. He does not shy away from that, and the Steelers will need every bit of intimidation factor they can get until they can drastically lower the age of the defense. Status: Restructure and Keep’m
3. DL Ziggy Hood (Age: 25, Yrs: 3)
Things looked oh-so-promising in 2011 for Hood. In just his second season (2010), he saw 13 games but with not very many snaps. In 2011, Hood saw action in all 16 games and was becoming a bigger factor on the defensive line for the Steelers – potentially becoming the full time replacement for Aaron Smith. But, in 2012 Hood’s presence began to waiver. Even though he racked up as many sacks in ’12 (3) as he did in his second season, his ability to apply pressure and stop the run were almost non existant. 2nd year man Cameron Heyward put the spotlight on Hood’s inability to help in the run. Watching tape, Heyward sealed lanes and took up space more effectively than Hood, and allowed the linebackers to become the inside run stuffers they were meant to be. Hood is signed through 2014 when he becomes a free agent. He will count almost $2.5 million against the cap in ’13, and I think the Steelers will use him to get more room to sign guys like Keenan Lewis to free agent contracts. Status: Release
2. DL Brett Keisel (Age: 34, Yrs: 10)
Brett Keisel is another defenseman who is signed through 2013. At age 34, Keisel will be one of the oldest on a defense that is trying to bring the median age down a bit. Keisel suffered a knee sprain near the end of the season, but will not require surgery. He is actually coming off of one of his better seasons with 4.5 sacks. Those sacks all came in the final eight games of the season where Keisel seemed to show he had one more gear left. Keisel also had 40 QB pressures, which is twice as many more than any other player on the roster. The Beard will count a whopping $4.5 million against the cap in ’13, which is the same amount in ’12. Keisel isn’t quite done contributing for the Steelers even though he will turn 35 at the beginning of the 2013 season. I expect the Steelers to either ignore his cap hit or restructure in some manner to make a little more room. If the team gets rid of Hood and are reliant on Cam and McLendon, then they absolutely need to keep Keisel. Status: Keep’m
1. Casey Hampton (Age: 35, Yrs: 12) UFA
Yeah I’m cheating on this one. Hampton is an unrestricted free agent so the Steelers technically don’t have an option to ‘release.’ But he is realistic in the team trying to retain him and keep him from staying on the market too long. Hampton is like any other Steeler that gets to be his age – they love the game, they love playing football, and will do it for just about any other team. Unlike Hines, who retired after not getting any early hits in free agency after being released by the Steelers, Hampton is for realzies when it comes to wanting to play and BELIEVING he can still hang with the ummm… ‘big boys.’ Big Snack is certainly wavering in his final years as a nose tackle. One of the best to enter the NFL, Hampton has been plagued by injuries from his weight and snap counts recently. The Steelers restructured Hampton in 2012 and paid out $2.8 mil plus a $2 mil signing bonus. Hampton will probably want something similar in a one or two year deal. I don’t think the Steelers will really opt to pursue Hampton – at least by his expectations. I think the Steelers will offer him a one year deal somewhere to the tune of $2 million with no bonus but maybe some incentives for performance. That will help the cap, and keep a veteran on while McLendon begins to settle in as the new NT. But, I don’t think that Hampton will like that deal and pursue other offers. So long Big Snack – the Old Country Buffets of Pittsburgh survived and thank you for your business. Status: Soon to be gone
To recap, that’s Polamalu, Harrison, and Keisel staying with Hood and Hampton gone. What are your thoughts, Steeler Nation?