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Kovacevic: Polamalu is a 'mane priority'

| Friday, July 22, 2011

Even with the NFL's what-was- that -all-about labor drama Wednesday, the lockout still moved a vital step closer to resolution. Shouldn't be long before local eyes turn toward Latrobe and the usual conversation about the Steelers' conditioning and Casey Hampton's caloric intake.

The weightiest subjects right away, though, will involve contracts, primarily whether management can reel back Ike Taylor from the free-agent pool and whether LaMarr Woodley's $10 million franchise-tag money can be reworked into a multiyear deal.

But here's another, a bit off the beaten path: Should the Steelers extend Troy Polamalu's contract, which is due to expire at the end of the coming season?

I tossed this one into the Twitter-verse a couple nights ago and promptly saw it tossed right back. "A no-brainer," several responders called it. Polamalu should be the team's "mane priority," one wiseacre wrote.

I'm there, too, believe me.

Polamalu is an exemplary citizen in a group that could use a few more of those. He is one of the great safeties in NFL history. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He is the league's incumbent Defensive Player of the Year. He is a presence so untamed and unpredictable, he single-handedly forces opponents to alter game plans.

And if all that reality's not enough for you, well, just this week, those geeks at EA Sports announced that the virtual version of Polamalu will have the maximum 99 rating for the next Madden 12 video game. The only other players at 99: Tom Brady, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Gates.

No question, Troy Polamalu should be a Steeler for life.

But let's look at the broader picture, anyway, just for argument's sake:

» Polamalu turned 30 in April. Factor in his punishing style, and you might as well add a year or two.

» Of the Steelers' 35 games the past two seasons, he played in just 22. Last season, he was hobbled by an Achilles tendon injury from mid-December into the Super Bowl, essentially reduced to a center-field role and seldom seen at the line of scrimmage.

» All together now: The defense is getting older. James Farrior is 36, Aaron Smith 35, Hampton and James Harrison 33, Brett Keisel 32 and Ryan Clark 31.

» Polamalu will cost a mint. Baltimore's Ed Reed, Polamalu's only peer among safeties, is 32 and entering the final year of a six-year, $40 million contract. The highest-paid safety in NFL history is Kansas City's Eric Berry, drafted last year and signed to a six-year, $60 million contract, with $34 million guaranteed. If that's the bar, it's hard to fathom Polamalu getting less than $10 million annually.

Still, none of these items would change my mind. In fact, I'll go further and suggest the Steelers make signing Polamalu a high priority.

Polamalu's four-year, $30 million contract, which made him the Steelers' highest-paid player when signed in 2007, calls for $6.4 million this coming season. But the salary-cap hit is $8.6 million. With the Steelers projected to be about $10 million over the NFL's likely new cap of $120.4 million, an extension would help right away. And let's be real: This is the last year for this defense.

Moreover, future cost certainty comes with sealing up Polamalu, Woodley and Taylor, as that allows management to place the franchise tag next year on Lawrence Timmons. Let Timmons earn an extension with a first Pro Bowl appearance.

I brought a lot of this up Thursday with Marvin Demoff, Polamalu's California-based agent, and he sounded like a man ready to take a call.

"The Steelers always have done this sort of thing the year before a contract is up," Demoff said. "There's been no discussion yet, but I'd say it's highly likely that was because of the lockout. We'd be open to it, sure. Troy's played there eight years and wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh."

But finish when?

The main danger for the Steelers in a long Polamalu extension is that he hangs on too long. The team never could cut a player of his stature.

"That's not Troy," Demoff said. "He's not the type to keep playing when he's not at a high level. No offense, but he's not going to be Brett Favre."

He described Polamalu as healthy and ready for camp.

"Troy tends to be pretty hard on himself emotionally and physically," Demoff said, "and he feels really good about where he is."

The Steelers need to ensure Polamalu feels that way for years to come. Imagine all that hair flowing out the back of some other helmet.

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