The Pittsburgh Steelers report to training camp in Latrobe in just 15 days from today and now is as good a time as any to take an early look at the free agent situation that will follow the 2012 season. Below are the players that are entering the final year of their contracts along with an early outlook at their individual situations. I will revisit this list again after the 53 man roster is determined.
Unrestricted Free Agents:
WR Mike Wallace - Free Agency Status - ? - The free agency status of Wallace all depends on whether or not he signs a long-term deal prior to the start of the season, as the Steelers are not ones to negotiate contracts once the season begins. Wallace is currently a restricted free agent and he needs an accrued season to become an unrestricted free agent in 2013. That means he would need to sign his restricted at tender at some point and be on the active roster for at least six games. Should that scenario take place the Steelers could still decide to place the franchise tag on him just the same following the season. With all of the above said I think he gets his long-term deal at some point during training camp and that he is no longer a talking point moving forward.
RB Rashard Mendenhall - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Mendenhall is all but certain to start the 2012 season on the reserve PUP list as he continues to rehab his knee. That means he must miss the first six weeks at the minimum. The rules of the PUP list mean that Mendenhall could return to the active roster anywhere between week 7 and 13 depending on how his rehab goes. He will be unrestricted after the season and might want to test the free agent market being as he is still very young and does not have a lot of wear and tear on him outside of his recent knee injury. It is still way too early to get a firm grasp on where the Steelers stand with him long-term, but the salary cap and money he may want will surely factor into that decision along with how the younger backs perform this year in his absence. He would be a candidate for the franchise tag should the Steelers decide to go in that direction with him, but I would be surprised if that ended up being their course of action.
QB Byron Leftwich - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - His days as a starter are way behind him and his first course of action this year is to make it through the preseason healthy. He will only be 33 years of age next offseason so it is not out of the question that the Steelers bring him back yet again on a one-year qualifying contract like they did this past offseason as either the backup to Ben Roethlisberger or as the third stringer. The Steelers will not give him anything more than the minimum more than likely, so it all depends on if he gets shunned in free agency like he did this past offseason. Don\'t bet against him not being back.
QB Charlie Batch - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Batch will be 38 after the season and you have to think that 2012 will finally be it for him in Pittsburgh. Sooner or later the Steelers need to start thinking about trying to groom some younger arms on the roster and it is hard to see Batch being back again, even if it was at a reduced cap hit like this year.
NT Casey Hampton - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Hampton could very well start the 2012 season on the reserve PUP list just like Mendenhall. He apparently plans to play beyond this season, but with the future nose tackle now on the roster in the form of Alameda Ta\'amu, this season is likely going to be the last for him in Pittsburgh.
ILB Larry Foote - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Like Hampton, 2012 will more than likely be the final year for Foote in Pittsburgh. The only shot he has at returning in 2013 is if he gets no attention in free agency and signs a one-year qualifying contract with the Steelers to compete for a backup spot.
S Will Allen - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Assuming he makes the 53 man roster out of training camp, 2012 will be it for Allen in Pittsburgh as the Steelers must make a move towards youth at the safety position. It is pretty cut and dry with him in my opinion.
T/G Trai Essex - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Essex, much like Allen, first has to make the 53 man roster out of training camp. Should that happen, 2012 is assuredly his final season in Pittsburgh.
LS Greg Warren - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Good long snappers can hang around the league forever and the status of Warren will likely depend on his performance in 2012. It is not out of the question that the Steelers bring him back on a one-year qualifying contract if he doesn\'t get any action in free agency and his name stays out of the newspapers.
TE Leonard Pope - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Pope was brought in by new offensive coordinator Todd Haley because of his familiarity with the new offense that he is installing. This season is likely to be a one and done though for Pope.
T Jonathan Scott - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Scott and his $2.7 million cap hit will be lucky to make it out of training camp. It is hard to imagine that he will return in 2013 should he somehow stick on the roster this season.
G Ramon Foster - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Foster figures to stick this year in a reserve role. His 2013 status all depends on his level of play this season and whether or not he attracts any suitors in free agency. This far out I would say that it would not be shocking to see him return on a one or two year deal for near the minimum.
G/C Doug Legursky - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Legursky is in the same boat as Foster this season only he can play center. Also like Foster I could see him returning on a one or two year deal if he receives no attention in free agency.
FB David Johnson - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Johnson first must make the 53 man roster out of training camp. Even if he sticks this season, he figures not to return in 2013.
CB Keenan Lewis - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Lewis certainly could be benefit greatly on the free agent market with a good first season as a full-time starter. The Steelers have Ike Taylor locked up for a few more seasons and also have Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown behind Lewis on the depth chart. A Pro Bowl season, like Lewis predicts he will have, would make him hard to sign long-term, but not impossible.
S Ryan Mundy - Free Agency Status - Unrestricted - Mundy could be back again in 2013 in a reserve role. He figures to be third on the depth chart once again behind Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, and his expected limited playing time in 2012 will decide his future. Right now I would say he is a 50/50 proposition to return this far out.
Restricted Free Agents:
WR Antonio Brown - Free Agency Status - Restricted - Brown will be back in 2013. The Steelers will likely tender him at a first round level if they can\'t work out a long-term deal by the time the free agency signing period rolls around. They will not let him get away. Count on it.
WR Emmanuel Sanders - Free Agency Status - Restricted - Depending on what type of season Sanders has will determine what kind of long-term deal he is offered. He is restricted though and at the very worst will receive an original round tender if a new deal is not reached by the start of free agency. The tender could be higher depending on his performance, but if he stays healthy and produces, he will be back in 2013. Count on this as well.
RB Jonathan Dwyer - Free Agency Status - Restricted - Dwyer looks like a good bet to stick once again and his playing time and performance will dictate not only his future, but perhaps that of Mendenhall as well. Being as he is restricted, and assuming he sticks out of training camp, the Steelers will likely place an original round restricted tender on him at worst. Should he somehow overtake Redman this season and play well, he could receive as high as a second round tender. Regardless, if the Steelers want him back in 2013, he will be back.
ILB Stevenson Sylvester - Free Agency Status - Restricted - Sylvester is a good bet to make the roster this season as reserve inside linebacker and special teams player. Following the 2012 season he should be easily retained with an original round restricted tender.
NT Steve McLendon - Free Agency Status - Restricted - McLendon looks to be the starter at nose tackle this season if Hampton begins the year on the PUP list. With Hampton likely playing his last season in Pittsburgh, McLendon should be easily retained as a restricted free agent.
P Jeremy Kapinos - Free Agency Status - Restricted - Before we worry about the status of Kapinos in 2013, he first has to beat out rookie Drew Butler in training camp. He will be restricted though should he stick and easy to retain should the Steelers want him back in training camp next year.