Ron Cook: New coach faces many big decisions
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The next Steelers coach will step into a pretty sweet situation. The team, though aging in a few spots and underachieving in a few others this season, has better talent than its 8-8 record. There's no reason it can't challenge the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North next season, especially if the Ravens end up with a Super Bowl hangover. The Steelers won't turn the ball over 37 times in 2007. Ben Roethlisberger won't throw 23 interceptions. For sure, Big Ben won't be in another motorcycle accident or have a second emergency appendectomy.
But the new man still will have a lot of work to do and plenty of questions to answer.
What to do with linebacker Joey Porter? He didn't have a good year, yet is scheduled to make $5 million next season in the final year of his contract and count $6.6 million against the team's salary cap. Does he get an extension? Do they bring him back for one more year at those big numbers? Do they ask him to take a pay cut? Or do they release him and spend that money elsewhere?
Which of the Steelers' starters do they want to lock up for the long haul? Safety Troy Polamalu, guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons, defensive end Aaron Smith, linebackers Porter and Clark Haggans and fullback Dan Kreider are entering the final year of their contracts in 2007. The time to do new deals is before next season. If the players are allowed to become free agents in '08, they'll likely be gone. Some team will overpay. Remember the Washington Redskins with Antwaan Randle El after last season? The Tennessee Titans with Chris Hope?
What positions do the Steelers target in the NFL draft? The team is not expected to be a big player in free agency, per franchise policy. Help has to come from the draft. Do you want depth on the offensive line, especially with center Jeff Hartings considering retiring? Or at cornerback, where Deshea Townsend is aging and Ike Taylor badly underachieved this season? Or how about outside linebacker, where Porter and Haggans had poor seasons?
The Porter issue will be the sexiest of the offseason. He wasn't happy with his contract this season and considered holding out before being talked out of it by then-coach Bill Cowher. "I definitely feel that I have outplayed the contract that I am under," Porter told the NFL Network at the time. "What I bring to the team ... it's not just me out there playing football. Me being the leader I am and the response I get from my team."
It's hard to imagine Porter agreeing to a pay cut. There's also no way the Steelers give him an extension with a big raise. He'll be 30 in March and his game is based on quickness. He was terrific down the stretch in 2005 -- virtually carrying the Steelers to the Super Bowl with 41/2 sacks in the final four regular-season games and three in the playoffs -- but he didn't have a sack in the final four games this season. His sack total dropped from 101/2 to seven.
Porter probably will be back next season only because the Steelers don't have much depth at his position. But don't be shocked if he's a salary-cap victim.
It's easy to say the Steelers should do new contracts with Polamalu, Faneca and Smith, much harder actually to pull it all off. Baltimore's Ed Reed set a high bar for safeties in the summer with a six-year, $40 million extension, which included a staggering $15 million signing bonus. Minnesota's Steve Hutchinson established a ridiculously high bar for guards after the 2005 season when he left Seattle as a free agent for a seven-year, $49 million deal, which included $16 million guaranteed. As for Smith, he's already pulling down big dollars; his contract calls for $4.5 million next season, a sizable number for a defensive end who is asked to play the run more than sack the quarterback.
The guess here is the Steelers won't be able to do extensions with all three. It will do what it has to do to keep Polamalu and take its best shots with Faneca and Smith. Hopefully, it will secure one or the other for the long term.
The Steelers should be able to keep Kreider. He'll come at a reasonable salary because there's not much demand for fullbacks in the NFL. Simmons, who lost his starting job for a couple of games this season to Chris Kemoeatu, and Haggans, who turns 30 tomorrow and saw his sacks total drop from nine in '05 to six this season, shouldn't be priorities.
Then, there's the draft.
When a team misses the playoffs, it clearly has needs. The Steelers must look hard at offensive linemen, especially if Hartings retires and it looks as if they can't do an extension with Faneca. It also should consider a cornerback unless it's convinced Taylor can snap out of the funk he sunk into virtually from the day last summer when he signed a $22.5 million contract that included a $6.4 million bonus. But the No. 1 need clearly is at outside linebacker. The defense wasn't nearly as strong this season without Porter and Haggans as serious pass-rushing threats. Picking a pass-rushing linebacker early could ease the sting of losing Porter and/or Haggans.
Memo to the new coach:
No need to say thanks for the free advice.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Joey Porter wasn't happy with his contract this season. Will he hold out on the new Steelers coach?
Click photo for larger image.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Troy Polamalu -- 2007 is the final year of his contract
Click photo for larger image.Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Alan Faneca -- 2007 is the final year of his contract
Click photo for larger image.
First Published January 9, 2007 12:00 am