With two of their three priorities secured, the Steelers will try to lock up safety Ryan Clark before he can become an unrestricted free agent one week from today.
The Steelers and nose tackle Casey Hampton came to a three-year contract agreement Thursday worth $21.3 million that includes a $6.5 million signing bonus. Then, they placed the franchise tag on kicker Jeff Reed, meaning he will earn $2,814,000 in 2010 -- the average of the top five kickers in the NFL.
They declined to use the transition tag that was still available to them to protect some of their rights to Clark, a tag that expired at 4 p.m. Thursday. Had they done so, they would have paid him $6,011,000 this season. Instead, they hope to negotiate a multiyear contract with their starting free safety of the past four seasons.
Team officials had identified Clark, Hampton and Reed as their top priorities to sign before free agency begins.
"Ryan is one of the three starters ... we've taken care of one, moved closer with another and we'll continue to talk," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said in Indianapolis, where the NFL scouting combine opened Thursday. "With all of these guys, they want to stay, we want them to stay. Usually, when you have that type of mindset on both sides, it helps get deals done."
Clark, 30, often has said he wants to remain with the Steelers and continue to play with Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu, but Polamalu in a way could prevent that. Polamalu was the second-highest paid safety in the NFL last season and will count $8,295,000 against their salary cap in 2010. Clark believes he belongs among the best safeties in the league and surely will want to be paid as such.
"He's offering himself at hometown discount, so to speak," agent Joel Turner said. "We're not asking for more than most people would. Keep in mind, Ryan is the best free safety not only in unrestricted free agency but restricted free agency. He's the best free safety in the business ... he does a marvelous job of quarterbacking the defense. This is not a situation where this is some average guy. Ryan is superior at his position."
By placing the franchise tag on Reed, the Steelers virtually eliminated him from leaving in free agency. It would provide the Steelers with two first-round draft choices in return if he signs elsewhere.
"Our goal is to lock Jeff up long term and have him finish his career with the Steelers," Colbert said. "He's aware when the process gets to this point, we all need to buy some time. As long as players and agents are willing to stay with the team, and the team wants you, you're going to get a deal done. We want to keep Jeff as long as we can."
Hampton, who will be 33 years old next season, will remain with the Steelers through the 2012 season under the new deal. Hampton would have been paid a $7 million salary if he had been franchised.
"It was very important for our organization to have a player of Casey's caliber signed for what we hope is the rest of his career," Colbert said. "Casey has been a big part of our success, and we think he has a lot of football left. Plus, we think he's one of our true leaders, and to get this free-agency period kicked off early by getting him locked up, means a lot to our organization."