The Pittsburgh Steelers have had one of their most active off-seasons giving out over $15 million in signing bonuses to six players, including nose tackle Casey Hampton.
While the Steelers have accomplished a number of priorities this off-season, retaining Casey Hampton, Ryan Clark and Jeff Reed along with adding depth at key positions, ownerships’ biggest test has yet to come.
That includes signing rising stars Santonio Holmes and LaMarr Woodley to extensions.
Woodley and Holmes are entering the final year of their contracts in the prime of their careers. Both players are in line to receive upwards of $15 million guaranteed.
Although the team has tabbed Holmes and Woodley as priorities, management is not moving quickly to re-sign Woodley or Holmes, like they did with James Harrison last April.
Sources close to both sides indicate that the Steelers have yet to engage in contracts talks and won’t do so until after the draft. Preliminary talks with both players are expected to begin in May.
Last off-season the Steelers gave out $49 million in guaranteed money to retain Max Starks, Justin Hartwig, Brett Keisel, James Harrison and Heath Miller
Negotiations with Holmes and Woodley could prove to be difficult at the start for Pittsburgh due to the rising value of both players and the fact that Holmes and Woodley are represented by high profile agents.
Holmes, 26, is represented by super agent Joel Segal, while LaMarr Woodley is represented by Drew Rosenhaus.
Both agents are regarded as some of the toughest negotiators in the game and word around the league is that Rosenhaus is selling Woodley as one of the top outside linebackers in the NFL.
Woodley, 25, had 13.5 sacks in 2009 to lead the Steelers after a 11.5 sack season in 2008. Woodley also has 8 sacks in four career playoff games.
The Steelers signed outside linebacker James Harrison to a 6 year deal worth $52 million with $20 million guaranteed in 2009. Harrison was coming off a season in which he was named defensive player of the year but was also 31 years old when he signed the 2nd largest contract in Steelers history.
Retaining both players is going to be costly but both players are believed to be highly interested in staying with the Steelers long-term.
Holmes and Woodley are not only becoming rising stars on the field but are becoming leaders off the field.
During the Steelers woes in the second half of the season, Holmes began to establish himself as a leader in the locker room becoming very vocal following an embarassing loss to the Cleveland Browns. Woodley also became more of a vocal leader in his third season with the Steelers.
An interesting dynamic will be if the Steelers deem that retaining both players is too expensive due to their demands.
One league executive tells me that he believes the Steelers would go in Woodley’s direction, if they had to choose one or the other.