Free agency is a very important time for the Steelers, but not in the way it is for most other teams. For many teams, free agency is a way to plug those gaps in an offense or defense that will either keep the team going or vault them to a higher level of performance. It can be a frenzy with teams vying for the same high profile players – think Black Friday minus the trampling for big screen TV’s. However, for the Steelers, free agency is a complicated process that is much more about retention/dumping of current players than it is about bringing in a player from another team. It’s just part of Kevin Colbert’s and Omar Khan’s master equation of maximizing their cap money.
The Steelers have 24 free agents, restricted and unrestricted combined, to deal with this offseason. Some of them are bigger names and larger contributors, and others hardly took snaps in 2012. Today, I’ll focus on the defensive side of the ball, starting with the defensive line and the linebackers.
NT Casey Hampton (Age: 35, Yrs: 12) UFA
Hampton was just featured in one of my other posts about Steelers that are ‘on the block.’ Injury plagued of late and lacking the ability to take up two defenders like in his younger years, Hampton is not as affective as he used to be at the nose. In those younger years, Hampton allowed lanes to open for blitzing linebackers to get to the ball carrier or put pressure on the QB for passing attempts prior to third downs. He was never a good third down option for the pass rush and was frequently subbed out in those packages. The evolution of the supporting cast on defense does not allow for such progressions anymore, and the team needs to have a nose that can play all three downs and bust up plays that allows pressure on the QB. Steve McLendon is doing such things when he is present. Prior to Alameda Ta’amu’s bust of a season after he himself got busted on the South Side, Ta’amu was the future at nose. That may not be the case any more, so there is a case to pursue Casey. What is unknown is how stingy Hampton will be about how much he feels he should get paid at age 35. My gut tells me he wants a multi year deal that gets him through age 37. However, I don’t feel the Steelers would want him more than a year to help with a fuller transitional period. They will throw a deal at Hampton for a one year $2 million deal, but that’s it. I don’t think Hampton will bite, and so we will probably find him on a more defensive sapped team looking for a nose or interior lineman. No Deal
DL/NT Steve McLendon (Age: 26 Yrs: 3) RFA
Kind of a bummer when your two depth charted NT’s are up for free agency. However, McLendon is a restricted, so the Steelers have options with him. McLendon has grown into his role over the last three seasons, and really picked up the pace this past season. McLendon played in all 16 games this season and racked up two sacks in that limited roll of spelling Hampton. McLendon is certainly smaller than Hampton, but gives the Steelers option of having a consistent pass rusher in the interior. He is strong and physical at the line, and handles his own. The Steelers could allow McLendon to sign on another team and take a draft pick for him, but I doubt it will come to that. I really don’t think they will let McClendon get much in the way of offers either. If they let him go or get too pricey for their own cap room, they are screwed and are forced to go with Ta’amu after he spent most of the season on the practice squad post-arrest. I’m going to guess the Steelers will offer him something to the tune of $6 million over four years with a $2 million signing bonus over those four years as well. That might just get him to bite, and he will count about a million less than Hampton would be if under his current pay grade against the cap. Sign’m
LB Larry Foote (Age: 32 Yrs: 11) UFA
Foote has been a Steeler for ten of those eleven seasons. He spent on season with the Lions back in ’09. He had problems being the lone MLB in a 4-3 scheme, and it just didn’t work out for Larry and his hometown boys in Detroit. Foote found his way back on the Steelers roster in 2010 after the Steelers did some shuffling with the linebacker depth chart. They needed a strong veteran presence at the inside, and Foote fit the bill. However, Foote’s most glaring flaw is his pursuit, and that is killing the Steelers defense on critical third downs or when Foote is in a zone as the spy on the RB or TE. It’s pretty bad sometimes and is becoming quite the liability when the Steelers D desperately needs to get off the field. It’s a shame Sean Spence went on the IR so early. It probably wouldn’t be a very difficult decision to let Larry go if the Steelers had a ‘for sure’ replacement. But they don’t… at least at the inside. Foote was due $3 million plus a $600k signing bonus in 2012. I believe his stock has gone down in the past two seasons since signing with Pittsburgh, but I don’t think the Steelers can realistically offer him anything less than $3 million. With more defenses evolving to a 3-4, Foote has more options than he did three years ago. I think he’ll test the waters and get snagged by another team out West like Arizona (shocker!) or San Diego. No Deal
LB Stevenson Sylvester (Age: 24 Yrs: 3) RFA
Sylvester’s stock slipped badly in his senior year of college. That made him somewhat a steal in the 2010 draft, and the Steelers have groomed him the last three seasons. The Steelers will certainly offer him a contract as the draft pick option is of lesser value for the team. Sylvester is still another year long project, but he will have to step it up because (as I just said) the Steelers probably won’t retain Foote. Without knowing how well Spence will come back from his injury and play in his ‘second’ year, the Steelers will need to retain Sylvester. He’s shown some strong play over the last two seasons, and I think he has the potential to step up. He certainly is faster than Foote, which would help in the pursuit department. I think the Steelers will offer him somewhere around a three year $3 million contract, which is double what he made in 2012. Sign’m
LB Brandon Johnson (Age: 29 Yrs: 7) UFA
Brandon Johnson found himself on special teams immediately for the Steelers and even found some snap counts on defense. He certainly did not have a season that would turn many heads from other teams, so the Steelers are safe in offering Johnson a mediocre offer – which they will make an offer. The special teams core is thin and the linebacker core even thinner. The Steelers will need to retain some of the vets like Johnson who are multi-faceted and have an opportunity to step up into bigger roles. Until the Steelers get a big draft prospect in LB (aside from Spence), they will be bargain hunting like this for a few more seasons. I think the Steelers will offer up about two years and $1.5 million. Look to Johnson to be smart and take it. Sign’m
So to recap, I think the Steelers will sign McLendon, Sylvester, and Johnson. They’ll let Hampton and Foote walk. The legacy guys are on their way out, and it will be a very different roster over the next few years. Kevin Colbert has stated that no one is safe and no one will be franchised this year. Expect more to go than stay this offseason.
Check back later in the week for a free agency breakdown for the corners and safeties.