The Steelers re-signed one of their starters yesterday, not with an eye toward free agency that begins Friday but the one that takes place in 2008.
Defensive end Aaron Smith is the first of seven starters who could become free agents next year to sign a new contract. Smith signed a five-year contract that will take him through the 2011 season.
Financial terms of the deal were unavailable, but his old contract, which was scheduled to pay him a $1 million roster bonus March 6 and a salary of $3.5 million next season, was nullified by the new deal.
Partly because they have no starters who are unrestricted free agents this year and because they have so many due next year, the Steelers have put their efforts into trying to sign players before they can become free agents in 2008.
Other starters in that category are safety Troy Polamalu, linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons, and fullback Dan Kreider.
It's possible the Steelers will release Porter before he is due his $1 million roster bonus March 6, which would create $5 million in salary cap room. If they decide to release him, it could come Friday.
Tomorrow, the Steelers must give restricted free agent Max Starks a contract tender to maintain their rights to him. Quarterback Brian St. Pierre is their only other restricted free agent, but they likely will not make him an offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent Friday.
They will pick from one of two tenders -- a one-year $1.3 million salary or one for $1.8 million. If they decided not to match another team's offer, the different tenders would provide different compensation to the Steelers -- $1.3 million would bring a second-round draft choice and the $1.8 million a first-rounder.
Smith, who turns 31 April 9, became the Steelers' starting left defensive end in 2000, a year after they drafted him in the fourth round from Northern Colorado. He has not missed a game in his seven seasons as a starter. Although ends in a 3-4 defense often play in relative anonymity, Smith made the Pro Bowl after the 2004 season when he had eight sacks.
Smith led the team's defensive linemen last season with 64 tackles, 48 solo, to go with 4.5 sacks. His 21 quarterback pressures were second on the team to end Brett Keisel's 23.
At 6 feet 5 and more than 300 pounds, Smith becomes even more important because of his versatility as the Steelers decide whether to switch from their 3-4 defense to a 4-3, or use both. Coaches believe Smith can move to tackle in a four-man line.