Now that Ben Roethlisberger's contract is done and Alan Faneca is gone, the next big deal in the Steelers' future looms this year, whether they do it or do not.
He's not a free agent, but offensive tackle Marvel Smith will become one next year if the Steelers do not sign him to a contract before then. He's in the same place this year as was Faneca last year; Smith has one year left on his contract, and no doubt he'd like an extension before he begins the 2008 season.
Smith is not as heralded at tackle as Faneca was at guard. Smith has made one Pro Bowl in his eight seasons while Faneca made seven in 10. But it can be argued that Smith is more valuable than Faneca because of the position he plays, and surely agent Ken Zuckerman might already being doing that.
No position on a football team might be more important after the quarterback than the left tackle. NFL personnel men say when you build a team, you start with the left tackle. One of the reasons the expansion Houston Texans failed early on was the injuries to left tackle Tony Boselli, and "franchise" quarterback David Carr suffered for it.
Smith has been a good, steady left tackle for the Steelers since he moved there in 2003 after starting his first three seasons at right tackle. He made the Pro Bowl after the '04 season. He's also had injury problems. A pinched nerve in his neck limited his '03 season to six games. He had back surgery in December that ended his season, but that surgery actually might help him in the future. It was minor, as back surgeries go, and relieved the pain he has played through.
Smith will earn a $3.95 million salary in 2008 and his cap number of $6,645,500 ranks fourth on the Steelers. He does not turn 30 until August and presumably has another good three or four years at least.
Can the Steelers keep him, and do they want to? We might find out next month. If the Steelers draft an offensive tackle in the first round and he happens to be a left tackle, chances of them signing Smith to a big-money contract would decrease. However, if they ignore the position on the draft's first day, they might have little choice but to sign Smith.
Those who condemn the Steelers for not taking a more aggressive approach to free agency by signing other team's players might keep in mind what's going on with the New York Jets.
The Jets have filled up their shopping cart with outside players -- Faneca, Damien Woody, Kris Jenkins -- and spent plenty of money on them.
But then comes this:
"You pay guys you don't even know, and the guys in the locker room -- the guys that have your back -- you don't give a damn about them," an unnamed Jets player told Rich Cimini of the New York Daily News. "It shows where the loyalty is."
Faneca aside, the Steelers always have tried to keep their players first by signing them to contract extensions, usually before they become free agents. Roethlisberger is the latest example, but others include Marvel Smith, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Ike Taylor, Willie Parker, Kendall Simmons, James Farrior, Larry Foote and James Harrison, just examples of current starters.
Yes, the Cleveland Browns have been more active signing others in the first week of free agency. But the Browns haven't had to worry about keeping many of their own players because until recently they haven't had many they wanted to keep.
The Steelers resist the growing popularity of using smoke, fireworks and what-have-you during pregame player introductions. The practice began in the NBA and many NFL teams now do it.
The gaudy player introduction show, however, is nothing new, as Dick Hoak recalled when he spoke after former teammate Buddy Dial's death last week.
Back in the early 1960s, the Steelers sometimes would play on Saturday night against the Browns in old Cleveland Stadium. There, Hoak remembered, a spotlight would shine on individual players of both teams as each was introduced.
Cleveland Stadium also was the home of the Indians, and in those days there was no artificial turf, and they had to play on the dirt of the baseball infield. Dial and fellow "end" Preston Carpenter always would cook up something for introductions in Cleveland.
"One year," Hoak said, "Preston slid into second base. Another, he and Buddy locked arms and danced around second base."
Of course, in the current No Fun League, that would call for a $10,000 fine, $15,000 if their socks weren't just right when they did it.
The trade that sent Dial to the Dallas Cowboys after the 1963 season, by the way, was made so the Steelers could acquire the rights to offensive tackle Scott Appleton, the Outland Trophy winner from the University of Texas. Appleton, though, signed instead with Houston of the AFL, and the Steelers got nothing out of the deal.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published March 9, 2008 5:00 AM