Steelers to face some tough decisions
Wide receiver Hines Ward says he wants to retire as a Steeler.
Nose tackle Casey Hampton, who's also entering the final year of his contract, says he wants to stay in Pittsburgh beyond the 2009 season.
How many veterans such as Ward and Hampton that the Steelers can accommodate remains to be seen.
The Steelers are near the salary cap. Finding the wiggle room that would allow them to sign key players to multiyear contracts won't be easy, especially given the uncertain labor situation.
The Steelers have such limited room under the salary cap that they released running back Gary Russell last week to make room for backup quarterback Charlie Batch, director of football operations Kevin Colbert said Monday.
"There could be further deletions as we move forward," Colbert said, "depending on how our cap situation evolves."
The highest 51 salaries count against the cap until a 53-man roster is set at the end of preseason practice.
Among the contracts the Steelers still have to fit under the salary cap, which will be $127 million in 2009, are those given to players they take in the NFL Draft this weekend.
The Steelers, who signed outside linebacker James Harrison last week to a six-year, $51.175 million contract, are hoping to reach a multiyear agreement with offensive tackle Max Starks that would give them salary cap relief. Starks is due $8.45 million this season.
When the owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement last year, it triggered certain restrictions that limit how creative teams can be when negotiating or restructuring contracts. One restriction doesn't allow for base salaries to increase by more than 30 percent a year.
A new CBA doesn't appear to be imminent because the NFL Players Association didn't elect a new executive director until last month.
As such, the timing of having so many players heading into the final year of their contract — 10 starters from last season fall into that category — isn't exactly ideal for the Steelers.
Two players, Ward and Hampton, were among the Steelers who took part in the team's first offseason practice yesterday.
Ward, who had offseason shoulder surgery and played on a sprained knee in Super Bowl XLIII, said he's easing back into workouts. He expects to be 100 percent by the start of training camp.
Even at 33, Ward said he still has some good years left in him, and the 12-year veteran left no doubt that he wants to finish his career where it started.
"I don't want to put on another uniform," said Ward, who holds most of the Steelers' major receiving records. "I want to go down as one of the better wideouts to wear the black and gold. If the two parties can come together and agree to that, I'm all for it."
Hampton, 31, says he feels the same way.
The nine-year veteran said signing Harrison and inside linebacker James Farrior, who agreed to a multiyear deal last year, shows that the Steelers will pay valued veterans.
"The myth is kind of changing of not paying guys over 30," Hampton said.
Then, he added with a hearty laugh, "Just look out for me one time."
With essentially no room left under the salary cap, the Steelers may have to make some tough decisions regarding which veterans they sign to multiyear contracts. Here's a look at the key players that are heading into the final year of their contracts:
Player — Pos.
Willie Colon — OT
Justin Hartwig — C
Heath Miller — TE
Max Starks — OT
Hines Ward — WR
Player — Pos.
Ryan Clark — FS
Larry Foote — ILB
Casey Hampton — NT
Brett Keisel — DE
Player — Pos.
Jeff Reed — K
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