It’s that time of year in the National Football League where sentiment disappears and the hard realities of life under the salary cap and the impending free-agency period are the primary focus of most teams.
One of the top stories leading up to the last Super Bowl was the opportunity for the great Champ Bailey to play in the game for the first time in his career, which dated back to 1999. The not-so-great story yesterday was the release of Bailey, a certain Hall of Famer, by the Denver Broncos.
The Steelers began in earnest their salary cap work this week, but the big moves are yet to come. They released offensive tackle Levi Brown, which was fully expected; cornerback Curtis Brown, which was semi-expected, and linebacker Larry Foote, which was a bit of a shocker. At $1.5 million, Foote figured to be returning next season, even as a backup. The Steelers thought differently in a decision that was based more on age, he’ll be 34 in June, and playing ability than cap considerations.
Next up: Cornerback Ike Taylor and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
Taylor, who will be 34 next season, is due to make $7 million and isn't worth half that much. His best days are well in the past, but he might be kept if he’s willing to accept, say, $2.5 million. The guess here is that he will. It’s also possible the Steelers might not offer Taylor a contract and look at free agency for a cornerback.
Woodley, 29, is due to make $8 million. The signing earlier this week of Jason Worilds, also an outside linebacker, to a 2014 deal worth almost $10 million, effectively ended Woodley’s Steelers’ career. His age and his history of production will gain him interest from other teams, despite his recent inability to stay healthy.
The Steelers re-did the contracts of tight end Heath Miller and strong safety Troy Polamalu. Both players will receive most of their 2014 salary in the form of a signing bonus, a move designed to reduce their cap hit this season. This has been described in several places as kicking the can down the road, which is to suggest the Steelers are pushing today’s problems off until tomorrow. But overthecap.com, the most respected site concerning NFL salary cap management, took a more tolerant view of what the Steelers did.
The Steelers also reportedly signed safety Will Allen to a one-year deal.
Allen, a veteran journeyman, and Polamalu, a future Hall of Famer, are somewhat of a package with the Steelers. The Steelers played in their sub-defensive packages on about 60 percent of their downs last season. After Allen broke into the lineup for the final seven games, he played 69 percent of the snaps at strong safety, as Polamalu moved closer to the line of scrimmage.
With his pass coverage skills considerably diminished, it would not be surprising if 2014 is final year with the Steelers for Polamalu, who will be 33 next month.
Another area that must be visited by the team is defensive end where three of the four players who were at that position last season are free agents. Returning only is Cam Heyward, who had a breakout 2013 season. The free agents are long-time starter Brett Keisel, former No. 1 draft choice Ziggy Hood and Al Woods, who has not started a game in his four-year career spent with the Steelers, Tampa Bay and Seattle.
Keisel, who will be 36 in September, is said to still want to play. The Steelers have been a bit ruthless in cutting veterans in recent years -- Foote, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Hines Ward. But their depth is so lacking at end that Keisel might be brought back, if he’s willing to accept the veteran minimum. It’s hard to imagine Hood, a four-year disappointment, coming back but the Steelers lack of depth is such that if he doesn’t get offers in free agency that could happen.
Finally, the team figures to attempt to bring back free-agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who won’t cost a bundle and had a terrific season in 2013.
The Steelers are getting younger. It remains to be determined if they are getting better.