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Steelers insider: Team historically watches from sideline during free agency

| Sunday, March 10, 2013, 9:50 p.m.

NFL free agency allows good teams to dare to dream they could be even better with one astutely negotiated contract, while weaker teams dare to dream that one big signing or lucky acquisition could turn them around in a season — just like Drew Brees' signing did with the Saints.

Teams such as the Steelers just nod off to sleep and don't do much wishful thinking at all.

Even after releasing James Harrison on Saturday, the Steelers don't have as much room as other teams to be a big player once the signing period starts at 4 p.m. Tuesday. (The negotiating has long since begun; NFL teams and agents were permitted to start talking with one another Saturday.)

Since Kevin Colbert took over as general manager in 2000, the Steelers haven't made a single splash transaction in free agency. They've signed mostly stable, solid players with a history of performing and stayed away from risky players who might cost too much and produce too little.

As evidence, some of the better players they've signed in the Colbert era (not counting free agents who never played for another team, such as Harrison) were linebacker James Farrior, center Jeff Hartings, safety Ryan Clark, defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox and linebacker Larry Foote (the second time around).

Not a big contract in the bunch.

The washouts include receivers Cedrick Wilson and Quincy Morgan, kicker Todd Peterson, center Sean Mahan (the only flop at that position in decades), quarterback Kent Graham and offensive lineman Rich Tylski.

Not a big contract in the bunch.

Of late, they've used free agency to pick up affordable players to supplement their special teams (like linebacker Brandon Johnson a year ago). They could do that again this year, though there would seem to be affordable players on the market who might help them. Here are five:

• Tight end Anthony Fasano, Dolphins. He had 41 catches and five touchdowns last season and, given the importance of the tight end in Todd Haley's offense, would supply protection in case Heath Miller isn't ready when the season starts.

• Running back-kick returner LaRod Stephens-Howling, Cardinals. They need a running back and a kick returner. He's both in a smallish package. And he'd be returning home; the former Johnstown High star played at Pitt.

• Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, Redskins. Think new special teams coach Danny Smith wouldn't like to be reunited with this guy? Alexander led all players with 21 special teams tackles last season and ended up in the Pro Bowl.

• Outside linebacker Jonathan Casillas, Saints. Casillas has shown enough as a backup in New Orleans to suggest he would produce more with more playing time.

• Safety Rashad Johnson, Cardinals. The Steelers took away former Cardinals defensive back William Gay. Why not another, especially given the ages of Clark and Troy Polamalu?

The Steelers have 17 unrestricted free agents, and it's not likely many will return. The most likely to come back are long snapper Greg Warren and fullback David Johnson. The others could be summed up thusly:

Not coming back: WR Mike Wallace, RB Rashard Mendenhall, QB Byron Leftwich.

Probably not coming back: S Will Allen, WR Plaxico Burress, G Ramon Foster, T Max Starks, NT Casey Hampton, LB Brandon Johnson, CB Keenan Lewis, S Ryan Mundy.

Possibly coming back: QB Charlie Batch, LB Larry Foote, OL Doug Legursky, TE Leonard Pope.

Of their restricted free agents, running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and nose tackle Steve McLendon are coming back. Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester might not.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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