The developing crisis in the offensive line eased a tad yesterday when the Steelers came to terms with guard Chris Kemoeatu. And team officials remain optimistic others will rejoin him and fullback Sean McHugh, who also agreed to a contract.
Not long after Kevin Colbert said he felt good about re-signing some of their own top free agents, the Steelers did just that with their starting left guard.
"Our big free-agency [move] is trying to keep our own players, which we are trying to do," said Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations. "Our own players want to find out what else is out there. If they leave, they want to know that they had a good offer to do it. We'll be as competitive as we can be."
That is precisely what happened with Kemoeatu. He received an offer from the New York Jets that averaged a little more than $4 million per year on a four-year deal. The Steelers' contract averaged $4 million on a five-year deal and he accepted that $20 million contract that includes a $3,885,000 signing bonus.
The Jets reportedly thought they were about to land their second guard from the Steelers in the past two years. They signed Alan Faneca a year ago.
"Obviously, he's very happy," said Kemoeatu's agent, Ken Vierra. "The Jets were extremely aggressive and professional. At the end of the day, it was an opportunity to win another Super Bowl and stay with his teammates, along with a good, aggressive, solid offer from the Steelers. That was enough to keep him there."
McHugh, their starting fullback and No. 3 tight end, received a three-year, $2.57 million contract with a $390,000 signing bonus. He signed a one-year deal with them Sept. 3 after Detroit cut him.
The Steelers also would like to keep Trai Essex home. He is an experienced backup guard and tackle who has played in 34 games and started four.
Colbert said they also hope to keep others, although it appears wide receiver Nate Washington and cornerback Bryant McFadden will soon sign elsewhere. Washington visited Detroit yesterday with Tampa Bay and Tennessee also trying to line up visits. Any number of teams have expressed an interest in McFadden.
"Until players meet with other teams and find out what their market is, we don't know if any or what combination we can keep,'' Colbert said. "We may be able to keep all of them or keep none of them. We'll probably be able to keep a combination of our own and possibly add some guys as this thing gets into a more sensible range."
The Steelers did not plan to meet with any free agents over the weekend, and Colbert said none is scheduled for a visit.
He offered an explanation why the Steelers released veteran guard Kendall Simmons Thursday. Simmons was their starting guard since 2002, but he was placed on injured reserve after his Achilles tendon was torn in the fourth game last season.
They lost salary-cap room by releasing him, but they will save actual cash, the $3.1 million salary he was to receive. That real money can be used elsewhere.
"We don't like doing these things," Colbert said. "He is recovering from a pretty serious injury, and indications are that he will be available at some point for the '09 season. It's hard to determine when that will be, and we felt we could use the maneuverability in the cap, even though it doesn't give us immediate cap relief."
Simmons paid a visit to the Buffalo Bills yesterday. Darnell Stapleton replaced him as the starter last season. He remains under contract, as does guard/tackle Jeremy Parquet, who has been in and out of the league since 2005 without ever getting into a game until he played briefly in five of them with the Steelers the past season.
Kemoeatu became a starter in his fourth season with the Steelers, who drafted him in the sixth round in 2005. Coincidentally, he became a starter after the New York Jets signed Faneca.
Colbert was not surprised that Kemoeatu took a little less to remain with the Steelers.
"I don't think players want to leave here. I think they enjoy their experience here, and they want to stay. And, if that's the case, the agent will usually give you the opportunity to match what his client is getting.
"We're going to monitor what's going on, obviously, with our own guys that are making early visits and we'll see where the early signings are, but it's just never been our style to be involved in this early process."
NOTES -- Colbert said the Steelers' negotiations with James Harrison are ongoing and the only ones taking place with a player that has one year left on his contract. ... The Steelers are about $10 million under the newly adjusted salary cap of $127 million for each team. ... The Steelers have eight draft picks at the moment, an extra in the seventh brought by their trade of Sean Mahan to Tampa Bay.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com.