STEELERS FREE AGENCY BUZZ
By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers will have 24 free agents, including 18 unrestricted, when their contracts expire in some two months after the start date is set at this year’s owners’ meetings.
Unrestricted free agents like running back Rashard Mendenhall and wideout Mike Wallace normally would be high-priority signings, but with the baggage each toted this season, the likely high salary each would desire and talent of younger players at their respective positions could make each expendable.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis and offensive linemen Ramon Foster and Max Starks were starters, but younger talent could make either one’s loss easier to take. Second-year player Cortez Allen will push Lewis for playing time next season. Even if he won’t admit it.
“I don’t know Keenan’s plans,” Allen said. “You’ll have to ask Keenan that. I always go in and give my best effort in whatever I do. Everything else will fall into place if I just continue to work hard. (So), I just play for my teammates and work hard. … Coming into this league, you have to understand that it’s a part of it. Of course, you build relationships with each individual guy.
“How close we are, I’m positive that we’ll stay in contact with each other. It’s tough to lose a guy but it’s a part of the game and something that you have to accept. It’s a blessing to be able to battle with the guys that I had a chance to, and best of luck to them wherever they go.”
Offensive tackles Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachum all have playing experience. At guard, if the Steelers keep often-injured Willie Colon, since he received a big contract a couple years ago, Foster’s days could be numbered with the Steelers.
“(Position flexibility) is part of my game that I’ve had for a while now,” Foster said. “I was solidified at one spot this year for the most part. When called upon, I thought I did pretty good when given the opportunity to play right tackle and other positions, too. That’s one of those things I’ve always had, even in college.
“(Being flexible) will (help in free agency), but the thing for me is to be really good at one thing. So, the fact that I’ve played different positions helps out a whole lot. (And) I can tell (free agency) is a little mind wrecking. I’m sure there is a lot of stress, dealing with the fact that you might have to leave friendships here. It’s definitely something that you have to take a lot of consideration into.
“It’s not something you can decide on overnight,” Foster added. (And) the friendship part, it would be tough if I wasn’t here. That’s just part of the business. I hope I’m here. I guess, if the opportunity and certain things arise and it’s better for me and my family, I guess I just have to go with that. I’m definitely open to whatever. (But) we can be really good next season.”
Foster referenced former first-round picks Maurkice Pouncey at center and David DeCastro at right guard and second-round selections Gilbert and Adams at tackle as key components to future Steelers offensive lines.
“I think the average age in our room now is 25 years old,” Foster said. “Those guys are really good. I think everyone in our room now has played. We have depth. We just have to get everybody healthy this offseason and see how everything transpires.
“(So), I think we have a lot of talented and special players on the line. You have all dynamics, smart guys and tough guys, every type of dynamic in the room. The talent is bottomless right now. I want to be a part of a line like that. Barring injuries, it could be a really special line.”
Another borderline case, one the Steelers could attempt to re-sign for the short term or decline, is inside linebacker Larry Foote. Coming off his best season, the 11-year veteran has no preconceived notions about free agency.
“At my age, you can’t go in expecting anything or making any demands,” Foote said. “Either they want me, or they don’t. I really don’t have much say on it.”
Lawrence Timmons played well enough to earn a Pro Bowl nod, although he didn’t get it, but his steady improvement this season appears to bode well for the future.
The other inside backer spot is up for grabs with Sean Spence, the club’s 2012 third-round pick, a leading candidate. However, Spence suffered a serious knee injury — torn ACL, LCL and dislocated left kneecap — in the preseason finale. Often-injured third-year linebacker Stevenson Sylvester also is in the mix, but he hasn’t done anything so far also due to injuries.
“I feel like I did OK this season, (but) I wish I would have started the year better,” Timmons said. “I felt like I finished strong toward the end. My thing is not about how you start. It’s how you finish.
“I don’t know (about Foote). That’s up to the front office. Hopefully this isn’t his last year. He had a great year. I always looked forward to playing next to him. He’s definitely an inspirational guy in our room and just a joy to play with.”
Notes: The Steelers unrestricted free agents this year are Will Allen, Charlie Batch, Plaxico Burress, Larry Foote, Ramon Foster, Casey Hampton, Brandon Johnson, David Johnson, Byron Leftwich, Doug Legursky, Justin King, Keenan Lewis, Rashard Mendenhall, Ryan Mundy, Leonard Pope, Max Starks, Mike Wallace and Greg Warren, while Jonathan Dwyer, Steve McLendon, Isaac Redman, Stevenson Sylvester and Emmanuel Sanders are restricted.