Hines Ward signs autographs before the debut of the NFL Films documentary on the Steelers' super season yesterday at the AMC Lowes Waterfront.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The silence from the Steelers speaks loudly for Marvel Smith, who plans to move on, according to the tackle's agent. Yet the team has been talking aplenty to try to keep guard Chris Kemoeatu, but that, too, could become a moot, or mute, point in the end.
Both starting offensive linemen will become unrestricted free agents at 12:01 a.m. Friday if they do not re-sign with the Steelers before then.
For Smith, the nearly $8.5 million the Steelers guaranteed to tackle Max Starks when they named him their franchise player Thursday and their lack of a phone call to his agent, means he will play elsewhere next season, in all likelihood.
"I haven't heard from them," agent Ken Zuckerman said yesterday. "We're planning that they're moving forward and we're moving forward. That's what we're looking at. They tagged Starks, they're talking to other linemen, so we're assuming that they're moving forward in a different direction and so are we."
They are negotiating with Kemoeatu, who finished his first season as their starting left guard in his fourth year. Agent Ken Vierra said he talked Friday with Steelers negotiator Omar Khan in Indianapolis and "I would expect our talks will heat up in the next day or two."
But Vierra notes one big problem for the Steelers, the NFL's salary cap. Various trackers of the cap peg the Steelers with roughly $20 million under the cap of $123 million. However, that was before Starks' deal, and before the accounting from last season that could affect their cap for this season. Taking just Starks' salary, it would reduce their room to around $11.5 million. All salary cap accounting must be done by Thursday, the day before free agency begins.
"We had some good initial discussions but they have a bit of an issue now with the cap because Max is counting $8.5 million," Vierra said. "They have some work to do on their end."
Further complicating deals done now is that, because 2010 is an uncapped year unless a new collective bargaining agreement is worked out, no salary can increase by more than 30 percent from 2009 to 2010. It should put a premium on either keeping a salary high for '09 -- and thus eating up more cap room -- or putting more money into a signing bonus. The latter might be even more difficult for the Steelers, who are undergoing an ownership restructuring.
Vierra cited the 30 percent rule as a potential problem as the Steelers negotiate for Kemoeatu.
"Yeah, they want him back," Vierra said. "But just because he wants to be there and they want him back doesn't mean it will get done. They have to do some stuff on their end."
Among that stuff is to extend the contract of linebacker James Harrison, the NFL defensive player of the year. That should cut deeply into their available salary cap room as well.
Those also are reasons they likely will get no deals done with cornerback Bryant McFadden or wide receiver Nate Washington before they become free agents Friday, too.
Smith and his agent are not surprised, nor angered, the Steelers have made no moves to keep him. Zuckerman works for Priority Sports and Entertainment, which also represents guard Alan Faneca, who left the Steelers as a free agent last year at age 31. Smith, entering his 10th season, turns 31 in August.
"I don't think he's disappointed," Zuckerman said. "Listen, if you look at the track record, the Steelers keeping guys going into their third deal, they don't keep many. They've paid Max Starks over two years probably more than Alan Faneca made over two years.
"I think that's the telltale sign when guys get around 30, whether it's Joey Porter, Alan Faneca or Marvel. This is not a shock to me, and I don't think it's a shock to Marvel because I prepared him for this.
"Marvel will get an opportunity to have a change of address and continue his career in the NFL and go from there."
Smith, who made one Pro Bowl after the 2005 season, ranked among the better left tackles in the league before back issues grounded him in each of the past two seasons. He started the first five games last season before his back flared up and never played again. He had surgery late in the season and was ultimately placed on injured reserve. He also had surgery late in 2007 after he started the first 12 games to remove a piece of herniated disk.
Zuckerman said while he believes Smith is healthy, that was not the issue because of the Steelers' philosophy of replacing offensive linemen in their 30s with younger players.
"They won doing it so you can't say it's wrong. It works for them. I totally understand what they're doing. It's a business."