Friday, February 18, 2005

Steelers Stuff

Even though other NFL teams are starting to throw around the franchise tag (see here, here and here, for example), there's still no word out of Pittsburgh about their plans (short-term or otherwise) for Plaxico Burress.

In the meantime, here's part of an article on the AFC North (specifically, the Steelers part) that originally appeared on Football Outsiders yesterday. You can go here to read the whole thing. Knock yourself out:

Now What?
The Pittsburgh Steelers, coming off a 6-10 season, managed to go 15-1 in 2004, winning the AFC North by a landslide that would make FDR blush while unearthing a rookie quarterback who reeled off 13 regular season victories in a row on his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. So what can we expect for the encore in 2005? Well, Bill Cowher has no plans of replacing any of his coaching staff, but he has suggested that Roethlisberger will spend much of the off-season in Pittsburgh getting stronger and looking at film. Specifically, Roethlisberger wants to get a better handle on the intricacies of the zone defense – something that gave him a lot of trouble during the last third of the season and into the playoffs.

There could be a lot of turnover on this team given the number of free agents and potential salary cap casualties. But, like their rivals in New England, the Steelers found out in 2004 that many of their backups can be solid starters. Linebacker Larry Foote’s performance during the 2004 season might make it easier for Pittsburgh to part ways with the 2001 Defensive Rookie of the Year Kendrell Bell. Nose tackle Casey Hampton will return in 2005, but his replacement, undrafted free agent Chris Hoke, was a pleasant surprise in his absence and provides excellent defensive line depth. Another undrafted player, James Harrison, was a top special-teamer and had several strong games at linebacker. His play may allow the Steelers to part ways with 2003 second round pick, linebacker Alonzo Jackson.

Who Stays, Who Goes
Pittsburgh has no plans to pursue any big-name free agents from outside the organization, but they will have some tough decisions to make this off-season regarding their own players. Cornerback Chad Scott is scheduled to make $3.9 million in base salary next season, and if he doesn’t re-work his contract, he’ll probably be cut.

Guard Keydrick Vincent had a very good season, but he’s a free-agent and will be looking for a big payday. Since the Steelers will get guard Kendell Simmons back from injury, Vincent is probably going elsewhere. Pittsburgh would like to re-sign tackle Oliver Ross, but probably as a backup. He also played well in 2004, and with so many NFL teams looking for quality offensive linemen, someone will make Ross an offer that will be tough to turn down. And then there’s Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings, slated to make $4.2 million in 2005. He’ll need to re-work his contract if he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers also promised to renegotiate Hines Ward’s contract, so that his pay better reflects the fact that he’s one of the top receivers in the league. And the Steelers will also have to decide what to do with Plaxico Burress. Ward and Roethlisberger have both made it clear they want Burress back, but can the Steelers afford him? They can choose to franchise him – they have until February 22 to do so – or try to work out a long-term deal. But with guys like T.J. Houshmandzadeh looking for $8 million signing bonuses, Burress won’t come cheap. The Ravens have expressed interest in Burress, but I can’t imagine the Steelers would let him go to a division rival.

Oh yeah, some guy named Jerome Bettis is also contemplating retirement. And if Bettis decides to return for one more season, he’ll need to re-work his contract as well. Fortunately, the Steelers are relatively deep at the position, so even if Bettis hangs them up, Pittsburgh should be able to manage with Duce Staley, Verron Haynes, and Willie Parker.