INDIANAPOLIS -- Kevin Colbert said cornerback is one of the two deepest positions in the National Football League draft. The other is defensive end, where he said there are plenty of tweener-sized guys who project as outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense -- an area, seemingly, of little need for the Steelers.
Maybe not so with cornerback.
Not if the Steelers can't resign cornerback Bryant McFadden, the only starter on the league's No. 1 defense who is an unrestricted free agent.
"He is a priority, but we know we can't keep this whole team together," said Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations. "We understand that."
Colbert said the team will try to sign their key free agents before the free-agency period begins Friday. But McFadden, who received $520,000 last season in the final year of a four-year, $2.46 million contract, could earn significantly more than that on the free-agent market.
A lot more, perhaps, than what the Steelers might be willing to pay, especially after putting an $8.451 million franchise tag on tackle Max Starks and getting closer to a new contract for All-Pro linebacker James Harrison that would allow him to end his career with the team.
And McFadden and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, are expected to explore that avenue -- for good reason. McFadden quickly has become one of the most desirable cornerbacks on the free-agent market, and not just because he is a starter on a defense that finished No. 1 against the pass in 2008.
Already, two of the other top cornerbacks who were unrestricted free agents -- Oakland's Nnamdi Asomugha and Kelvin Hayden of the Indianapolis Colts -- have signed lucrative multi-year deals to remain with their teams. In addition, the Houston Texans have placed the franchise tag on cornerback Dunta Robinson and the Washington Redskins appear to have made re-signing cornerback DeAngelo Hall one of their top priorities.
That leaves McFadden, a No. 2 draft pick in 2005 who has started 21 NFL games, near, or at, the top of the free-agent cornerback list. And that could price him out of the Steelers' financial picture.
"It could," Colbert said. "It only takes one team to accelerate the price. It doesn't take a great market. If one team has a sincere interest and you're not able to match [the offer], you're probably going to lose that player."
Rosenhaus could not be reached for comment.
The Steelers also might not be willing to raise the ante for McFadden because they have cornerback William Gay waiting in the wings. Gay started four games last season when McFadden had a broken forearm and then rotated every two series with McFadden when he returned. That rotation continued right through the Super Bowl.
The Steelers also have veteran Deshea Townsend, but they seem content to use him as their nickel back.
"Gay has done some nice things, but you never know if anybody is ready to be a regular until he's a regular," Colbert said. "You saw things in William Gay's play that maybe he can be [a starter], but you don't know. They're kind of like draft picks -- you don't how they're going to be at the next level; you don't how a backup is going to be as a starter.
"So, if you can keep your starter, unless you know for sure [the backup is ready], you're better off keeping your starter if you can."
If they don't, the Steelers might have to look to the draft for help, especially because Townsend will be entering his 12th NFL season. And it is a deep year for cornerbacks.
As many as five cornerbacks could go in the first round, and 11 have a chance to be drafted by the end of the second round.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com .