I will gladly defer to Jeremy of the Lounge Legal Department to explain what I contend was a flawed decision by the Eighth Circuit. Regardless, that decision likely greatly increased the chance of cornerback Ike Taylor re-signing with the Steelers and also bettered the odds of Pittsburgh playing in its fourth Super Bowl in seven years assuming there is a 2011 season.
It also greatly decreases the likelihood offensive tackle Willie Colon remains with the Steelers for 2011, and makes tight end Matt Spaeth 50-50 to return. Whereas the owners now appear to have the upper hand, court decisions have gone both ways which makes it more likely that fourth- and fifth-year players like Colon and Spaeth will become free agents this offseason.
While the labor strife has been and remains confusing and unpredictable, there were really only three likely scenarios as they pertain to potential free agents this off-season:
1. The lockout would be lifted by the courts system (a victory for the players) and football would resume under 2010 rules, since no CBA would be negotiated before the 2011 season begins. That would mean Taylor would be among a smaller, less-talented pool of veteran free agents, while the Steelers would retain the rights to Colon, Spaeth, cornerback William Gay and punter Daniel Sepulveda since those four would be restricted free agents as fourth- and fifth-year players. Moreover, there would be no salary cap for 2011 or the foreseeable future.
Through this scenario, Taylor would rival the younger but more injury-prone Carlos Rogers of the Redskins as the second most sought after free-agent cornerback on the market behind Oakland superstar Nnamdi Asomugha. Taylor would have also been among the 15 most coveted players on the overall market.
Knowledgable and connected Steelers beat writers like Ed Bouchette, Jim Wexell and Scott Brown have all predicted that Taylor would return; Taylor clearly wants to stay in Pittsburgh; and the Steelers are reportedly prepared to spend up to $8 million per year to retain his services.
However, his price tag might have gone much higher under scenario No. 1, especially with no salary-cap restrictions. Moreover, the Steelers do no fare well in bidding wars, particularly against the deep pockets of NFC East owners, all of whom but the Giants are seeking cornerbacks in free agency.
Whereas most fourth-and fifth-year players could still theoretically be denied unrestricted free agency before a 2011 season begins, scenario No. 2 below is now more likely due to the Eighth Circuit indicating the owners will again prevail in the next round of litigation.
2. A CBA is reached that allows fourth- and fifth-year players to join the list of unrestricted veteran free agents like Taylor. Through this scenario, the Bengals’ Jonathan Joseph, Antonio Cromartie of the Jets and the Panthers’ Richard Marshall would become unrestricted free-agent cornerbacks. All are considerably younger than Taylor, with Joseph and Cromartie probably as good on the field, although Cromartie has major attitude problems and should be required to undergo a court-ordered vasectomy.
This scenario would likely include a salary cap restored beginning in either 2011 or 2012. Either way, other teams would be less inclined to break the bank for the 31-year-old Taylor. Finally, the owners will likely insist upon and almost assuredly get (now that they won the last round in court) the franchise tag in a new CBA. That means linebacker LaMarr Woodley would remain with the Steelers for 2011 while the front office negotiates a long-term deal to lock up its stud pass rusher.
Regardless of how late a deal is reached, scenario No. 2 now seems most likely to occur. That is because scenario No. 3 is now implausible due to the players winning the lower-court ruling in Minnesota.
3. Through this scenario, no CBA would be reached until very late. With the owners having the upper-hand in negotiations due to guaranteed television revenues, teams would have the right to retain any of their own free agents for 2011 by offering them 130-140% of their 2010 salary on a 1-year deal.
However, the owners’ television guarantees may still be lost as the Eighth Circuit is not tackling that issue yet. Moreover, the chance of this dream scenario for the owners went by the wayside, because in requesting an emergency stay from the Eighth Circuit, the owners guaranteed in writing that there would be some form of free agency this offseason regardless of how late a deal is reached between the two sides.
Now, while it was always a crapshoot, I had long been guessing a 2011 off-season would proceed under scenario No. 1 from above, but now am projecting scenario No. 2.
Assuming there is eventually free agency for the large pool of fourth- and fifth-year players as the same time as veterans like Taylor, here is how that may affect potential Pittsburgh free agents this offseason:
QB Charlie Batch: Any of these scenarios would likely have no impact on Batch. I doubt any other team would sign him or that he has much interest in leaving Pittsburgh.
Prediction under Scenario No. 2: My guess is the Steelers sign Batch to a one-year veteran’s minimum contract with no guarantees. He would be the No. 4 quarterback entering training camp and seemingly the odd man out behind Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon. But I have learned to never count Charlie out.
RB Mewelde Moore: A veteran free agent under either of the first two scenarios, the Steelers may try to get younger at this position by not bringing back Moore, although he has been a valuable all-around contributor for Pittsburgh over the past three years. It was surprising that the Steelers did not select a running back until the seventh round in the 2011 draft. That draft pick, Baron Batch of Texas Tech, is almost a Moore clone and projects as an NFL third-down back, although many did not expect him to be drafted at all.
Prediction under Scenario No. 2: Moore signs with another franchise and does not receiver an offer from Pittsburgh. The Steelers may still bring Moore or another veteran into camp to compete with Jonathan Dwyer, Batch and James Johnson for the final two running back spots on the roster, but my bet is some other team shows more interest in Moore than the Steelers.
TE Matt Spaeth: Spaeth would only become an unrestricted free agent under scenario No. 2 above. The Steelers would like to have him return as the No. 2 tight end under a Jerame Tuman-type deal averaging less than $2 million per season. However, if any team wants to give him starter’s money, then the Steelers will let him walk without putting up a fight. It would be easy to sign a cheaper veteran to do what Spaeth is mostly asked, which is in-line blocking in the two tight-end set. The risk is that the Steelers would then have no viable receiving threats at tight end if starter Heath Miller was lost to injury. Then again, despite his being touted as a receiving tight end when the Steelers drafted him in the third round in 2007, Spaeth has 36 career receptions in four seasons. He would not be missed much.
Prediction under Scenario No. 2: My guess is that Spaeth will return on a three- or four-year contact, because no other team would deem him as a potential starter and he sees action on nearly half of Pittsburgh’s offensive plays. However, it was a weak draft class at tight end and some franchise may see Spaeth’s size potential as intriguing and make him a better offer. Flip a coin on this one under scenario No. 2.
OL Willie Colon: Colon is the easiest to figure out. Under scenario No. 1, he would be a restricted free agent and the Steelers already tendered him an offer that requires another team to send the Steelers a first-round draft pick if they sign Colon. If he returns, Colon will be tried at right guard (a weak link for Pittsburgh’s offensive line for nearly a decade) and at the very least would provide a proven above-average tackle, a spot where the Steelers’ top players all have major question marks for this fall. Starting left tackle Max Starks is coming back from a season-ending neck injury, Colon is returning from a season-ending torn Achilles tendon, and right tackle Flozell Adams is 36, with his mammoth body seemingly breaking down more regularly as the 2010 season progressed. However, under scenario No. 2, Colon is almost assuredly going to sign with another franchise. He may have to take an incentive-laden, short-term deal to attain fair-market value due to his injury. But he is not going to do so with the Steelers, whose front office has already said they want Adams to be their starting right tackle in 2011. Moreover, the Steelers have made no effort to sign Colon to a long-term deal even after a 2009 season where he was one of the better right tackles in the NFL. Adams, however, replaced him in 2010 with virtually no drop-off at the position.
Prediction under Scenario No. 2: Colon signs elsewhere and Pittsburgh does not even make an offer. Adams is the right tackle of the present and 2011 second-round draft pick Marcus Gilbert is the right tackle of the future.
OL Jonathan Scott: Scott’s fate with the Steelers may be tied to Colon. A journeyman who appeared to have less than a 50% shot of making the roster in 2010, Scott moved up to the top reserve spot at tackle after Colon went down and then became the team’s starting left tackle after Starks was lost, with Scott improving considerably as the season progressed. However, he is best as a versatile and valuable reserve dressing on gameday, since Scott does not have the athletic ability desired of a starting NFL tackle. The Steelers obviously want him to return, since Scott and Taylor were the only players whose agents were contacted about resigning with the Steelers during the 2010 season. However, under scenario No. 1, Scott may not even have a spot among the Steelers’ top seven offensive linemen, which would include the five returning starters from 2010, Doug Legursky and Colon. Moreover, with a small free-agent pool, some other franchise may view Scott as a potential short-term starter and valuable sixth-man, giving him a greater offer than the Steelers would. However, both change under scenario No. 2, which would include a deeper and more talented pool of free-agent offensive linemen. Scott then becomes more valuable to the Steelers, who would want him back on a three-year contact. In 2011 he would provide insurance and depth needed due to Starks’ health and Adams’ age. He could also compete with Gilbert for the right tackle job in 2012 after Adams is expected to retire. Finally, Scott could compete with a 2012 first-round pick (a player like Matt Reynolds of BYU) for the starting left tackle spot in 2013 when Starks is an unrestricted free agent, whom the Steelers are less likely to sign to a third contract. In all three years, Scott would join Legursky as the Steelers’ gameday reserves if he is not starting.
Prediction under Scenario No. 2: Scott re-signs a three-year contact with the Steelers for $1.5-1.8 million per year.
OL Trai Essex: During the five games he started at right guard during the first half of the 2010 season, Essex showed again that he is not an NFL starter at any position. During the second half of the season, however, he again showed that he is a valuable gameday reserve who can fill in at four different positions. As such, I would like to have Essex’ versatility and experience added to the 2011 roster. But it is hard to see that happening under either scenario, where the Steelers top seven linemen (the number that dress on Sundays) would likely include LT Starks, LG Chris Kemoteau, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG Ramon Foster or Colon, RT Adams, with either Jonathon Scott, Colon or Foster as the sixth man, and Legursky as the seventh man. Afterward, Gilbert would likely be the eighth man with the chance of moving up during the season, while youngsters Chris Scott and Keith Williams battle for the ninth and final roster spot on the offensive line, or both play well during the preseason and the Steelers keep 10 offensive linemen. Regardless, Essex’s presence would be less needed for depth and may keep younger players off the 53-man roster.
Prediction under Scenario No. 2: Essex signs a multi-year deal to be a reserve with another team.
K Shaun Suisham: While he has mostly had a mediocre career, Suisham was outstanding after replacing Jeff Reed in week No. 11 last season. He made 14 of 15 regular-season field goals. Suisham was more shaky in the postseason and was not very good on kickoffs. However, the new kickoff rules should aid him in the second area. Suisham deserves to be re-signed for a one-year contact and will enter camp as the favorite to hold on the place-kicking job. However, look for the Steelers to sign a rookie kicker adept at playing in cold, windy environments to compete with Suisham in training camp.
Prediction under Scenario No. 2: Suisham re-ups with the Steelers on a one-year contract.