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Steelers set for likely exodus of Mendenhall, Wallace, other starters

| Monday, March 11, 2013, 8:27 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver Mike Wallace beats the Chargers' Quentin Jammer for a third-quarter touchdown on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at Heinz Field.

The Steelers will change forever — at least this generation will — at 4:01 p.m. Tuesday.

Mike Wallace, one of the best big-play receivers they have ever had, might be gone by then — most likely to looking-to-make-a-splash Miami. He's likely to get more money than any player in this year's NFL free-agent pool and the only one to make more than $10 million a year.

Rashard Mendenhall is all but certain to be gone, a former first-round draft pick and 1,000-yard rusher who will seek a team that won't deactivate him on a late-season Sunday.

Keenan Lewis is likely out, too, not because the Steelers don't want to retain the cornerback who led the NFL in passes defended, but because they can't pay him on the open market the way another team can.

There could be more, too. James Harrison is gone, up for the highest bidder after being released Saturday. Max Starks might leave. So might Casey Hampton.

That's a ton of starters for any team to lose at once, and if it all occurs without the salary cap-throttled Steelers bringing a starter back in return, Tuesday might represent the greatest one-day talent departure they have had in their 80 years.

When general manager Kevin Colbert talked of inevitable change two months ago, this probably wasn't what Steelers fans envisioned.

“We'll evaluate the team, look at what we might look like under different scenarios,” Colbert said then.

One thing is for certain: the Steelers won't look anything like they did when they ended a disappointing 8-8 season Dec. 30.

What they'll look like when training camp begins in late July is to be determined and will be based on whether they can create enough cap space to sign some second-tier free agents and how well they draft in April.

Still, this could be an enormous loss of talent for a franchise that, in the past, has always — in Colbert's words — “had a replacement in place” when a key player departed.

When wide receiver Plaxico Burress left in 2005, it didn't hurt the Steelers; they won the Super Bowl that season. When guard Alan Faneca left following a messy contract dispute in 2008, they won the Super Bowl that season.

When safety Chris Hope left, Ryan Clark was brought in to replace him. When Earl Holmes left, James Farrior stepped in. When Kendrell Bell left, Larry Foote replaced him. When Carlos Emmons left, Joey Porter replaced him.

This time, the replacements still haven't been fully determined by a franchise that insists it's not in transition but, by Tuesday night, most certainly could be in exactly that.

“We've signed significant players in free agency, but they've been few and far between,” Colbert said. “We have to be open to that, but at what cost?”

Right now, it's one the Steelers probably can't afford to pay. Even if they designate guard Willie Colon as a June cut, a move that seems likely now that guard Ramon Foster has re-signed, the $5 million in salary-cap space created won't be enough to add multiple impact players.

And if the Browns jump in and sign Lewis, who had a strong first season as a starter in 2012, it will be a move that weakens the Steelers and strengthens a division rival.

And could Harrison be Cleveland-bound, too? His agent, Bill Parise, said the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker might not know his next destination for another week. Parise was starting to get multiple calls from teams Monday, and he said the process still must play out.

“Teams are only beginning to discuss, ‘Is he a fit? Is he someone we're interested in?' ” Parise said. “We're not even close (to making a decision). We're way, way behind (the other free agents).”

What the Steelers won't know until this fall is whether shedding so many starters, so much talent in one offseason — possibly one day in March — will put them way behind, too.

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

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