By Cian Fahey
The Pittsburgh Steelers added the names of Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and Chris Kemoeatu to a lengthening list of players who will not return for the 2012 NFL season. Smith, Kemoeatu and Ward join Bryant McFadden and Arnaz Battle as casualties of the team\’s bloated salary cap.
However, now that Omar Khan, the team\’s cap manager, has managed to bring the team below the expected salary cap, the team must begin to look at its own free agents.
The Steelers are in the unusual position of needing to focus on their restricted free agents moreso than their unrestricted free agents. Prior to last season\’s lockout, there was rarely widespread movement with restricted free agents, however because of changes to the collective bargaining agreement, the face of restricted free agency has changed.
Mike Wallace\’s situation has been well documented, as teams like the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots appear to be in the perfect position to swoop the star receiver from the Steelers, but he is not the only restricted free agent who could potentially find a new home this off-season.
Wallace will likely be the only restricted free agent tendered at the highest level by the team. Each of the other five restricted free agents will likely only receive the lower tenders which will result in the Steelers only receiving compensation relevant to the player\’s original draft position, ie: if Ryan Mundy leaves the team will only receive a sixth-round selection.
While Wallace is obviously the most important player for the Steelers to retain, each of Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky, David Johnson, Keenan Lewis and Mundy have played roles in the past and are slated to play roles on the team next year.
Most of the Steelers\’ unrestricted free agents are older players who can more easily be replaced than the youth which permeates through that list.
Of the group, Keenan Lewis figures to be the most worrying potential loss. Lewis last season played a much bigger role with the team opposed to previous years when he struggled to adjust to the professional game which prevented him from getting on the field.
Lewis has all the natural talent and physical requirements to be a starting caliber NFL cornerback and proved that last season when he played outside for the team\’s nickel defense. Lewis is similar to Ike Taylor in build and adds a level of diversity to the team\’s defense as he is more capable of playing press coverage and running with receivers opposed to William Gay.
When he has lined up in off-coverage throughout his career so far, he has struggled but at 25 years of age, he is still learning the game. Lewis was drafted in the third round with Mike Wallace and Kraig Urbik in 2009. His tender will require teams to compensate the Steelers with a third round pick if he is signed elsewhere.
A third round pick doesn\’t represent good value for the Steelers as Lewis should be a starter next year. While Curtis Brown and, in particular, Cortez Allen showed a lot of flashes as a rookie, Lewis is first in line to succeed William Gay as the team\’s starting cornerback.
Similarly to Mike Wallace, Lewis could have a few suitors. The New England Patriots, with six picks in the first three rounds, Denver Broncos, who need more youth at cornerback, and Detroit Lions, whose secondary is still a work in progress, could all eye Lewis as a potential value signing in place of a late third round draft choice.
The market for talented, young cornerbacks is always high as it is a very difficult position to fill. Lewis could be a hot property in some team\’s eyes.
While the market for restricted free agent guards isn\’t the same as it is for cornerbacks, Ramon Foster is still not totally guaranteed to return to the Steelers. Foster has been one of the more reliable starters for the Steelers in recent times. By no means is he a star, he is an average role player who won\’t consistently hurt the team.
The former college tackle went undrafted in 2009, therefore the Steelers\’ compensation if Foster leaves will be non-existent. Foster is essentially an unrestricted free agent except that the Steelers have the right of first refusal over him.
For some teams, adding the 26 year old, because of his starting experience and versatility, would be a good move. Foster could start for teams like the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams or Miami Dolphins while being a valuable sixth offensive linemen for others.
Sitting in a similar situation is guard/center Doug Legursky who also went undrafted in 2008. It would come as a surprise if any suitors did appear for Legursky because he lacks the experience or exposure on the field to convince teams to take a chance on signing him. However, Legursky has impressed as a center for the Steelers while his versatility could make him an interesting project for some franchises willing to bring him in.
24-year-old David Johnson was drafted in the seventh round in 2009 and has been the team\’s fullback for the past two years. Johnson, a college tight end, is another of the team\’s versatile players who doesn\’t light up the highlight film but does carry out his role well with the team.
He is still only 24 and improving the more he plays. While giving up a seventh round pick isn\’t a problem, Johnson doesn\’t offer enough as a receiver to realistically attract any interest from other teams. He is a good blocking tight end and fullback, but not a special one a la Vonta Leach.
The final of the Steelers\’ restricted free agents is also the oldest as Ryan Mundy is now 27 years of age. Mundy, the backup safety at both the strong and free positions, has been a valuable backup for the Steelers in recent times.
He did take some time to grow, and he isn\’t on the same level as a Ryan Clark or Troy Polamalu, but should be remembered for filling in well for both players in coverage and run support. He may be lambasted by a big part of the fanbase for not making the right read on DeMaryius Thomas\’ game winning touchdown reception in Denver, but that situation was created more from the quality play-calling by the Broncos\’ offense. Every first down play prior to that one had been a run, Mundy was being aggressive opposed to stupid.
For a fifth round draft pick, Mundy won\’t have many suitors. He does have a lot of ability, but his resume isn\’t stacked enough to attract suitors. He could potentially replace Ryan Clark down the line, but a lot has to happen over the next year or two for that to happen.
The Steelers should be happy to keep him.
Excluding those who were cut, the Steelers have 17 free agents hitting the market this year. Retaining the five tendered restricted free agents (Jamon Meredith likely won\’t receive a tender) is more important than bringing back the older role players who are more easily replaced such as Mewelde Moore, Trai Essex and Byron Leftwich.
Those may be serviceable players, but this team needs to continue to focus on the talented youth on the roster.