Start of free agency Tuesday will be business as usual for Steelers

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Other than the draft, the most anticipated day in the NFL's offseason arrives Tuesday, when, at 4 p.m., the market opens and teams can begin to sign any player in the league who qualifies as a free agent.

Pardon the Steelers if they do not participate. Indeed, what might be Mardi Gras to most NFL teams ranks as just another Tuesday for those who run the Steelers. When they shake hands with a player in free agency, it's not to seal a deal but to say goodbye to one of their own.

This free-agency period should be more of the same for the cap-strapped Steelers, who already might have signed their most notable and expensive free agent when they came to terms with cornerback William Gay on Monday. He does not technically count as an unrestricted free agent because the Arizona Cardinals released him, but his three-year, $4.5 million contract could go down as the best the Steelers could do in 2013 when signing free agents not their own.

They've been pretty good at doing just that, signing their own, through the years, but that also could change this year. A group of 17 of their players will hit the open market as UFAs Tuesday, along with six restricted free agents, and the Steelers could lose many of them.

Some of those players will be among the most-prized targets for other teams to sign, most notably wide receiver Mike Wallace and cornerback Keenan Lewis, but also starting offensive linemen Max Starks and Ramon Foster. If so, they'd have to go back to the mid-1990s to find more starters and key players who left them as free agents.

In 1996, they lost quarterback Neil O'Donnell, offensive tackle Leon Searcy and linebacker Kevin Greene among seven defections. But their worst losses in free agency occurred in 1997, when Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson, linebacker Chad Brown, receivers Andre Hastings and Ernie Mills, cornerbacks Willie Williams and Deon Figures and defensive end Ray Seals all left.

The Steelers still reached the AFC championship game at home that season, but then hit a skid of three years out of the playoffs (1998-2000).

They were a team in transition back then, heading into the new millennium, but general manger Kevin Colbert refuses to label them as such now. Nevertheless, they are about to lose many players who helped them to their most recent Super Bowl just two years ago, and they are not armed with enough salary-cap room to acquire any of their replacements on the open market.

"It's really not unique," Colbert said during the NFL Combine. "It's been ongoing. When you have some success, you've probably had good players, some of them have probably been a little bit older and, as I stated earlier, they're going to move on. We have to be prepared, both from a salary-cap standpoint and from a talent standpoint to make those changes. But it's really not any more sophisticated than previous years."

One new change in the rules adopted for this year is that teams no longer have to talk secretly to agents before the period officially begins Tuesday. They could start negotiating with agents for the UFAs and RFAs Saturday through Monday, but cannot sign them until 4 p.m. Tuesday.

The Steelers generally have done a good job keeping their own players in this century, but lately they have signed few other free agents of note. They have not signed a projected starter since center Sean Mahan in 2007. They signed only two UFAs in each of 2009 and 2011 and neither made their team (Jerricho Cotchery did not technically count as a UFA in 2011 because the New York Jets had released him).

This could be another one of those years. Surely, there will be no marquee players signed. The Steelers might find another Leonard Pope or a Mewelde Moore-type back, but those kinds of signings may not happen until later. When the clock strikes 4 Tuesday afternoon, only the exit door at the Steelers facility on the South Side will be busy.

As is his custom this time of year, Colbert said he is interested in all those Steelers who are about to become free.

"I'm not going to rule out any individual player in free agency," he said of possibly re-signing them. "I do know this: We won't be able to sign everybody. We'll have to pick and choose, but we won't eliminate a player or a position."

He indicated much earlier this year, however, that they would not negotiate with any of their impending free agents until they become free agents. They did make one or two exceptions. They re-signed veteran Justin King, who had joined them Dec. 18 because of injuries at cornerback, and Larry Foote said they have been negotiating to bring him back.

The Steelers could lose as many as six starters as free agents -- Wallace, Lewis, Starks, Foster, nose tackle Casey Hampton and running back Rashard Mendenhall. If they do, it would rival those departures in the mid-1990s, when the Blitzburgh team broke up.

Remember, though, this is not a team in transition.

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For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published March 10, 2013 5:00 AM


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