Cutting Porter wasn't easy, Steelers say

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Joey Porter is alone atop the list of NFL free-agent linebackers.
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A lackluster class of NFL free agent prospects, especially at outside linebacker, picked up steam when the Steelers released Joey Porter into the signing period that begins today.

Porter, perhaps the Steelers' best overall defensive player in the 21st century whose play helped win them a Super Bowl 13 months ago, was due a $1 million roster bonus by Tuesday and a $4 million salary in the final year of his contract. That, and other factors, prompted the Steelers to release him.

"Unfortunately, sometimes you have to terminate a good player, just to make it all work,'' said Kevin Colbert, the team's director of football operations.

Although no one on the Steelers would say so, the threat by Porter to hold out last summer played a factor in his release. Team officials did not want to burden new head coach Mike Tomlin with that kind of threat to his authority. Even though Porter was scheduled to make $5 million in the final year of his deal, he was unhappy with his contract and there was a chance he might boycott some of the minicamps and then training camp had he remained with the team.

The Steelers also released injured backup halfback Verron Haynes -- although they want to re-sign him -- and issued qualifying offers to tackle Max Starks and quarterback Brian St. Pierre, maintaining their rights to match any team's offer to the restricted free agents.

"Just let me say that releasing a player like Joey Porter who has meant so much to this franchise and obviously helped us win a Super Bowl championship is not easy to do," Colbert said. "It's some of the decisions that you have to make under this current system."

By releasing Porter, the Steelers were able to get under the NFL's $109 million salary cap which they were required to do by today, when the league's new calendar begins and the free agency signing period starts.

"It's definitely a cap-related issue where we needed some short-term relief, but we also had to factor in what our cap situation's going to be in '08, '09 and beyond," Colbert said.

Porter, whose 60 career sacks rank fourth on the team's list, should draw plenty of attention in a weak free agency class and could sign elsewhere quickly. He made three of the past five Pro Bowls, was twice All-Pro and was the team's co-MVP in 2002. He also served as a team co-captain the past four seasons.

"I think it will be very good. He'll be one of the most sought-after guys on the market,'' predicted Jeff Sperbeck, Porter's agent. "More teams are running the 3-4 defense; he can play with his hand down, on the outside, inside. He's done it all for the Steelers."

Porter, who turns 30 in three weeks, was considered to have an off season by the Steelers last year, although he still managed seven sacks. He had surgery last May for the second time in nine months on separate knees.

Tomlin made the phone call to Porter to inform him he would be released.

"I'm sure Joey's going to attract a lot of interest very quickly," Colbert said, "especially when you compare him to maybe what the whole class is. And teams that have more salary cap flexibility are probably going to be the ones showing the most interest in him."

Porter was a third-round draft pick in 1999 from Colorado State. He moved into the starting lineup the next season and started 106 games.

He was an acknowledged leader on and off the field, ordering throwback jerseys for his teammates to honor defensive coaches and Jerome Bettis at various times during their run to the Super Bowl in 2005.

He also was combative and controversial at times -- challenging Ray Lewis to come off the Ravens' team bus, getting thrown out for a game during a pre-game fight in Cleveland, and calling Browns' tight end Kellen Winslow a derogatory name to describe a homosexual.

One week before the 2003 season opened, Porter was shot in the buttocks and thigh while he was leaving a bar/restaurant in Denver. He missed the first two games, but started the rest

"There's no question Joey can and will still be a very productive player in this league,'' Colbert said.

NOTES -- Starks, who received a one-year contract tender of $1.85 million from the Steelers, would bring the team a first-round draft choice if they decline to match a contract he would sign with another team as a restricted free agent. "It shows me the Steelers have confidence in me and want to keep me," Starks said. "I'm optimistic about that because I want to stay in Pittsburgh. I would like to negotiate a long-term deal." St. Pierre received a one-year tender of $850,000 and would bring the Steelers a fifth-round pick if he signed elsewhere and they did not match. ... Colbert said even though the Steelers have more money under the cap because of Porter's release, they likely will wait to see what happens in free agency before they make a move and will not act quickly: "It's just not our style to be calling players at 12:01 and doing the breaking-type deals, especially in our situation. ... The Steelers also released offensive tackle Ulish Booker, who spent all of last season on injured reserve. ... Colbert on Haynes: "It's a very similar situation to Mike Logan last year ... we released him at this time last year. They're eligible for injury compensation under the CBA and insurance. He'll continue to rehabilitate with us with the thought we'll add him back when he's healthy."

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