Thursday, February 12, 2009

Free Agency: A Look Ahead

The Free Agency period is coming up in a few weeks and teams around the league will be making decisions which players to extend offers to and which players to let go. While the Steelers have never been big players in free agency (and don't expect that to change this year), there are some big-name free agents on the market that will likely change teams this offseason.

But what is the story behind the story? The salary cap, which in 2009 is $123 million. Over the next few months, you'll often hear the phrase "making cap room" with regards to teams letting veteran players with high salaries walk and opting to sign younger players.

Here's an approximate list of the amount of cap space teams have heading into Free Agency 2009. Look for the teams at the top to make some big moves, while the teams at the bottom will be quiet and likely have to cut some players to get under the cap.

All 32 teams ranked by current salary cap space against the 2009 limit of $123 million per club. They are ranked from most cap room (Tampa) to least (NY Jets).

1. Tampa Bay: $42 million
2. Arizona: $41m
3. Denver: $34m
4. Kansas City: $33m
5. Tennessee: $31m
6. Miami: $28m
7. Buffalo: $27m
8. Detroit: $26m
9. San Francisco: $26m
10. Houston: $25m
11. Philadelphia: $25m
12. Cincinnati: $22m
13. New England: $21m
14. Minnesota: $20m
15. Atlanta: $20m
16. Pittsburgh: $19m
17. Baltimore: $19m
18. Chicago: $19m
19. Green Bay: $18m
20. Cleveland: $17m
21. Jacksonville: $16m
22. San Diego: $14m
23. New York Giants: $11m
24. Dallas: $10m
25. Carolina: $9m
26. Seattle: $9m
27. St. Louis: $8m
28. Oakland: $4m
29. Indianapolis: $2m
30. Washington: -$3m
31. New Orleans: -$5m
32. New York Jets: -$7m

What does all this mean? Not a lot, but it does mean that some teams out there (Tampa, Arizona, Denver, KC, Tennessee...) have the ability to fill their needs with proven veteran players via free agency. Meanwhile, other clubs such as the Colts, Redskins, Saints, and Jets will need to spend their money wisely and will be more likely to work on fixing their holes in the draft.

Another thing to keep an eye on is teams releasing/trading players that have 1 year left on their contracts. Contracts tend to be scaled towards a higher payout at the end of contracts, which enables teams to save money in the short-term and cut that player if they do not play to their potential. They still have to pay some of the salary and benefits (such as the signing bonus) but it can save teams money. These are the players that tend to hold out of training camp in the hopes of getting a new contract.

So what does this mean for the Steelers?

Here is the Steelers outlook for 2009 Free Agency:
Unrestricted Free Agents: Max Starks, Bryant McFadden, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Nate Washington, Chris Kemoeatu, Marvel Smith, Keyaron Fox, Andre Frazier

The Steelers designated Starks as a "transition player" last year and shelled out a bunch of money for him. Personally, I think he is the most important UFA to re-sign. He's still young and did a great job at left tackle when he has filled in the last two years. Marvel Smith is older and injury-prone. With the rise of Willie Gay this year, Bryant McFadden saw even less time in the secondary, but he did prove himself to be worthy of a starting position. He isn't a true shut-down corner yet, but he has better ball skills than Ike Taylor. It would be great to be able to re-sign him, but someone who needs cornerbacks might overpay him. The Steelers will also have to make a decision between Batch and Leftwich. Both parties seem to agree that Leftwich was a one-year addition and that he could still find a starting job somewhere (Minnesota?). Look for the Steelers to make a strong run at keeping Batch.

Restricted Free Agents: Willie Colon, Anthony Smith, Trai Essex, Carey Davis

Now, here's the big list:

Players with 1 year left on their current contracts: James Harrison, Hines Ward, Brett Keisel, Heath Miller, Ryan Clark, Jeff Reed, Casey Hampton, Deshea Townsend, Larry Foote, Justin Hartwig

That's a lot of big-name players that have all been key pieces to the team during their two Super Bowl championships (except Ryan Clark, who was only here for the latter). Of these players, only Larry Foote and Heath Miller will be under 30 by the end of next season. In the past, the Steelers have made it a point not to dole out big contracts to players over 30. However, given Harrison's production the past few years and his relative lack of playing time during the early part of his carrer, he may become the exception to the rule. Ward and Townsend have spent their entire careers with the Steelers and will likely do their best to negotiate contracts to allow them to retire as Steelers.

This is obviously just the beginning and the Steelers have some big choices to make. But if the past decade has taught us anything, it's that the Rooneys and Kevin Colbert (directer of football operations) are very very good at making decisions about players (the Sean Mahan disaster of 2007 aside). Let's not forget, we've won two Super Bowls in the last 4 years. How many have New England, San Diego, Dallas, and everyone else not named the Giants or Colts won in that time? Zero.



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