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Timmons among 9 Steelers veterans to hit open market

| Tuesday, March 7, 2017, 8:51 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons puts a hit on Browns quarterback Cody Kessler Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016 at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton scores a 2-point conversion in front of Chiefs safety Eric Berry in the first quarter Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, at Heinz Field.

With the NFL Combine completed, the Steelers will turn their attention this week from writing down workouts times to writing checks.

Not known as movers and shakers in free agency, the Steelers still have some financial decisions to make and some roster spots to fill once the new NFL calendar year begins at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Teams could begin negotiating with representatives of free agents Tuesday, and the Steelers could be kicking the tires on adding a cornerback, wide receiver, running back or linebacker.

There also is the matter of trying to re-sign any of the nine players on their roster last season who hit the unrestricted free agent market Tuesday.

The Steelers are approximately $18.6 million under the $167 million salary cap, according to NFL players' association figures. That is after cornerback Ross Cockrell and backup offensive lineman Chris Hubbard each received $1.797 million tenders as restricted free agents.

Running back Le'Veon Bell, who received the exclusive franchise tag last week, is the only known player the Steelers are negotiating a long-term deal with entering free agency. The Steelers have until July 15 to strike a deal with Bell, so they likely will hit the pause button on his negotiations during free agency.

"We may have to deal with some of our own that will hit the market once free agency starts," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said last week at the combine in Indianapolis. "And then we also have to look at the other guys we might be able to sign from the outside.

"We try to do it all in union with each other. How it unfolds, we just never know."

To date, the Steelers have retained three of their unrestricted free agents: long snapper Greg Warren, and linebackers James Harrison and Steven Johnson. Hitting the open market were linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Jarvis Jones, defensive lineman Ricardo Mathews, safety Shamarko Thomas, backup quarterback Landry Jones, running back DeAngelo Williams, tight end David Johnson, offensive lineman Cody Wallace and wide receiver Markus Wheaton. Cornerback Justin Gilbert, released by the Steelers after the season, also is on the market.

Colbert said the team tries to maintain an open-door policy with all of its free agents and their representatives.

"They might say, 'We have a chance to get a four-year deal at a certain compensation, can you match it or are you interested in matching it?' We may or may not be," Colbert said. "I would say the majority of our players, if not all of them give us the right to stay in that conversation."

After deciding which players to try to re-sign, the Steelers then fill holes from the outside. Colbert has seen other teams following this draft-and-develop model lately.

"As a result, you're seeing less and less quality free agents," he said. "There's an inherent danger in that, because some of the players who are hitting the market with the number of dollars that are available, might not be quite worth what they're going to get paid because of the supply and demand. … You have to be careful about the free agent market and not overpay for maybe an average player."

Last year, in the days leading into free agency, the Steelers retained defensive backs William Gay and Robert Golden and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. They re-signed guard Ramon Foster in free agency, then added tight end Ladarius Green, reserve tackle Ryan Harris, Mathews and Johnson from the outside. Green was the big splash, getting a four-year, $20 million contract.

By giving Cockrell, their starting corner the past 11⁄2 seasons, an original-round tender, the Steelers would receive just a fourth-round draft pick if they don't match a contract he is offered elsewhere. Because Hubbard was an undrafted free agent, the Steelers would receive no compensation if he signs elsewhere.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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