Troy Polamalu or Lawrence Timmons?
Say it comes down to one or the other. Say the Steelers can do a long-term contract extension with only one before the start of the season. Say they have to risk losing the other as a free agent after the season.
What's your call?
What would you do if you were Steelers brass Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin?
You have to give the new deal to Timmons, right?
Timmons is 25, on the verge of becoming an NFL star. His combination of speed, strength and explosive power at inside linebacker is extraordinary. He is the future of the Steelers' defense along with outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. He has to be the top priority this month.
Polamalu is 30. Although he might be far from finished -- he was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year last season -- he has been susceptible to injuries. An Achilles problem dramatically lessened his effectiveness at safety in the playoffs and Super Bowl last season and remains an issue at this training camp. Everyone assumes Polamalu will be ready for the opening game at Baltimore Sept. 11, but there are no guarantees. Nor are there guarantees he will make it through the season without aggravating the injury or being struck down by another. He has to be less of a priority than Timmons.
That's not heretical.
That's just being practical.
We should know what the Steelers are thinking in the next few weeks. They have turned their full attention to Timmons and Polamalu now that they've made Woodley the highest-paid defensive player in franchise history. They secured Woodley's rights for this season with their franchise tag before locking him up long term Friday with a six-year, $61.5 million contract, including a $22.4 million bonus.
The Woodley signing added to what's been a frenetic but terrific summer for Colbert, Tomlin and team capologist Omar Khan, who play the NFL's salary-cap game as well as any management team in the league. They almost always find a way to keep the players they really want without busting their budget. It wasn't just Woodley this time. It was cornerback Ike Taylor and offensive tackle Willie Colon, among others.
"We sometimes get accused of not spending money on free agents," Colbert said last week. "But, if you add up what we spend to keep our guys, it's usually more."
Certainly, the Steelers will have to spend to keep Timmons and Polamalu.
It's important that the team gets at least one signed before the start of the season, its self-imposed deadline for contract negotiations. It was able to bring back Taylor and Colon as unrestricted free agents, but it might not be so fortunate with Timmons and Polamalu. They would be much more in demand on the open market.
Doing a deal with Timmons is the safe, logical way to go, not just because he's younger and his best seasons are ahead but because his cost will be significantly lower. A new contract would be his second with the Steelers. It would be No. 3 for Polamalu. Players generally make the really big money in their third deal.
If the Steelers re-sign Timmons, it doesn't mean they would have to lose Polamalu. If he stays healthy and keeps making the splash plays everyone loves and has come to expect, the team could put its franchise tag on him after this season. That would keep him in Pittsburgh at least through the 2012 season.
It's hard to imagine Polamalu playing for another team. He's a future Hall of Famer. He's one of the Steelers' all-time most popular players. He's a wonderful human being. He's been a great representative of the franchise in the community and nationally.
And that hair ...
Of course, it was hard to imagine Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Mike Webster and Rod Woodson playing for another team.
The Steelers let all three leave.
Football is a business, often cruel but always a business. Polamalu doesn't figure to offer to give the Steelers any sort of discount in his contract discussions with them this month. They don't figure to overpay him no matter how badly they want to keep him. The deal has to be right for both sides. The timing has to be right.
For Polamalu and the Steelers, it makes more sense to do a new contract next off-season.
Now is Timmons' time.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.