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For 2nd straight offseason, Steelers appear headed for significant roster upheaval

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 10:58 p.m.
Steelers offensie tackle Max Starks streches during practice on the South Side Sept. 5, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Steelers Casey Hampton plays against the Bengals at Heinz Field in Dec., 2012.

As Chargers coach Norv Turner was preparing to play the Steelers several weeks ago, he pulled out the game plan from three seasons ago. For a moment, he thought there was a mistake.

The names of the Steelers players, with one or two exceptions, were the same.

“They have guys that have played 10 years, 11 years, nine years, six years, 11 years and so on,” Turner said. “It is well documented. There is a reason they are as good as they are.”

What the Steelers (7-8) are attempting to determine going into their season-ending game against the Browns (5-10) Sunday at Heinz Field is why this season turned out as badly as it did — and what must happen to make sure it doesn't occur again.

Because the stay-the-course Steelers prefer to keep the same players, offseason changes such as those a year ago in which Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke retired almost seem seismic. By NFL standards, they were modest.

With the Steelers currently an estimated $12 million over the projected 2013 salary cap, a number of key players advancing in age and their offseason about to begin far earlier than usual, there could be far more upheaval this time — if only because the on-field results demand it.

General manager Kevin Colbert won't discuss personnel until a season ends, and coach Mike Tomlin deflected such questions as he prepared to coach in the most meaningless end-of-season game of his head coaching career.

“But you have some guys going and some guys staying every year,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “It's a reality in this business, especially when you're in the situation we're in.”

Based on contract status, salary concerns and roster makeup, the players most likely to leave appear to be:

• Wide receiver Mike Wallace. It would cost a $10.3 million franchise tag or an expensive multiyear deal to bring him back. The Steelers gave Antonio Brown such a deal last summer and they probably can't afford another. And there will be suitors for a deep threat who possesses Wallace's speed.

• Running back Rashard Mendenhall. The Steelers don't appear to have a feature back on their roster, yet it will be a major surprise if they even weigh offering him another contract. He'd probably prefer to play for the Bears, Bengals or Browns; the Steelers might prefer it, too.

• Nose tackle Casey Hampton. His partnership with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is one of the league's long-running. But the Steelers not only need to trim salaries, they have to find out if Steve McLendon can play.

“I've said he's the guy who's going to push me out of here,” Hampton said. “I understand that. It's just the nature of the business.”

• Offensive tackle Max Starks. He's always been there when the Steelers needed him; this time he probably won't be. Tackles who don't miss a snap all season are invaluable, and Starks' value is likely more than the Steelers can afford.

• Guard Ramon Foster. As dependable as it gets, which might mean the Steelers can't write him a check big enough.

• Linebacker Larry Foote. The Steelers don't need to be shedding team leaders, but Foote isn't likely to play for slightly more than the veteran's minimum he probably would be offered.

• Cornerback Keenan Lewis. His strong second half markedly increased his market value; he could land a $6 million-a-year deal on the open market. The Steelers badly want to keep him, but the question is whether they can afford him. If they do, it will force other cost-cutting moves.

Other likely departures: backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich (Batch is the more likely of the two to stay), linebacker Brandon Johnson, defensive backs Will Allen, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Ryan Mundy, tight end Leonard Pope, wide receiver Plaxico Burress.

Those likely to stay: Running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and McLendon, all of whom can be retained via tender offers. And Keisel, a prized team leader.

Likely to stay (but with contract modifications): Safety Troy Polamalu, linebacker James Harrison, guard Willie Colon, cornerback Ike Taylor, kicker Shaun Suisham. The Steelers must restructure a number of contracts to get under the salary cap; the first one could be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's — his 2013 cap value is about $19 million. If the Steelers decide to shed Harrison (and Colon, who hasn't played a full season in the past three), it could signal the most sweeping changes of the Colbert era. Harrison's 2013 cap value is $10.3 million, and he'd count about half of that if he is cut.

“I'm sure,” Brown said, “the organization is going to make the right decisions regarding who's going to be around here next year and give us the best chance to win.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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