The Steelers were able to beat the start of the free-agent signing period by reaching agreement on a new contract with one of their starters, guard Ramon Foster.
But he might be the last one for a while.
When the free-agent signing period begins at 4:01 p.m. today, the Steelers are all but expecting to lose at least three of their starters -- wide receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Keenan Lewis and running back Rashard Mendenhall.
With Wallace and Lewis, the deals with other teams could be done very quickly. The Steelers are expecting them to receive offers well beyond what they would be willing to offer.
But the Steelers made sure they were able to retain at least one starter when they reached agreement on a new three-year contract with Foster, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent today. The move means the Steelers likely will release guard Willie Colon, who has missed the better part of the past three seasons with injuries and was due to make $5.5 million in 2014.
Foster has been the team's most dependable offensive lineman since becoming a starter in 2010 and again in 2011 -- never missing a start in that time.
The Steelers have two options with Colon.
They can release him before 4 p.m. today and, with all the salary-cap ramifications, save $1.2 million under their team cap. Or, they can release him today and designate him for a June 1 release, thereby saving $5.5 million under their salary cap this year but pushing $4.3 million of his salary-cap accounting into the 2014 year. That $4.3 million is known as "dead money."
If the Steelers did that, Colon would become an unrestricted free agent immediately. Joe Linta, Colon's agent, told the Post-Gazette he has not been approached by the Steelers about any plans in regard to Colon.
Foster, 330 pounds, was moved to left guard when Colon missed five of the final six games last season because of a knee injury. But he probably will have to lose weight next season because offensive coordinator Todd Haley and new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. have expressed an intent to have quicker, more athletic linemen to bolster the running game.
The Steelers do not anticipate having the same luck with any of their top-flight free agents.
Wallace is one of the top unrestricted free agents on the market and could be signed by another team shortly after the free-agency period begins. The Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings are among the teams who would be interested in Wallace, maybe the top deep threat in the NFL.
Lewis is among the top cornerbacks on the market and could be pursued by division-rival Cleveland, which is looking for a corner to team up with Joe Haden. The Browns have the most salary-cap room of any team in the NFL, approximately $46 million.
The Steelers are willing to part with Lewis because they like Cortez Allen and think he is ready to be a starter. It's the main reason they brought back William Gay last week to be their nickel back. Gay signed a three-year, $4.5 million contract.
The Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos are interested in Mendenhall, who fell into disfavor with coach Mike Tomlin last season and was suspended for one game for failing to show up for a game when he was inactive.
If Mendenhall leaves, the Steelers will need to find a feature back -- most likely in the draft.
Ed Bouchette contributed to this report. Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published March 12, 2013 4:00 AM