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General manager Colbert, Steelers not in free agency rush

| Monday, March 26, 2012

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — If Kevin Colbert didn't state the obvious Sunday shortly after arriving at the posh Breakers Resort, the Steelers general manager sure came close.

"As you can see, we haven't done much in free agency," Colbert said on the eve of the NFL owners meetings. "Nor do we plan on it at this point."

The Steelers' approach has been they'll get to free agency when they get to it. That de facto club policy has been taken to another level this offseason, given the team's salary cap situation.

But on the same day the team lost starting cornerback William Gay to Arizona — he agreed to a two-year deal with the Cardinals — Colbert said the Steelers are hoping to bring back a number of their own free agents, including receiver Jerricho Cotchery.

The Steelers appear to have the kind of depth to weather the loss of Gay, who emerged as a pleasant surprise in 2011. The one caveat, as Colbert said, is that Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown have yet to prove they can start.

Less clear is the situation at receiver.

The Steelers had a logjam there last season. Now they are only assured of returning two of their top five receivers following the release/retirement of Hines Ward and the uncertain statuses of Cotchery and Mike Wallace.

Cotchery is an unrestricted free agent who already has visited the Kansas City Chiefs. Wallace is a restricted free agent that teams have until April 20 to sign.

Colbert expressed optimism that both will be with the Steelers — at least for the upcoming season.

The Steelers can match any offer Wallace receives or get that team's first-round draft pick in return.

"Ultimately it's our decision," Colbert said. "One thing we do know is we'll make the decision and nobody else."

The Steelers don't have that same leverage with Cotchery, but they have stayed in contact with him and his agent, Jack Scharf.

"It's not like he's looking to leave," Colbert said. "I think he'll leave if it's best for him and his family, but I think deep down he wants to stay."

The Steelers are believed to be $6 million to $8 million under the salary cap, which likely would limit what they can do in free agency.

But Colbert said the Steelers could make roster moves to create the flexibility that would allow them to sign free agents such as Cotchery -- or lock up Wallace with a long-term deal.

Among the players the Steelers have interest in bringing back are quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch and running back Mewelde Moore.

The Steelers, Colbert said, haven't ruled out re-signing Max Starks, who started the final 13 games at left tackle but is recovering from a torn ACL.

"We'll do what we have to do to field the best team in 2012," Colbert said, "and that could include making more subtractions."

Three for one

Cornerback William Gay, who has agreed to a two-year deal the Arizona Cardinals, tied for the Steelers' lead in interceptions (two) in 2011 and tied for second in passes defended (13). Here are the candidates to take his place in the starting lineup:

Cortez Allen: Fourth-round pick in 2011 showed he is more than just a project as he worked his way into defensive backs rotation. Allen recorded nine tackles in 15 games but missed the Steelers' AFC wild-card game because of a shoulder injury.

Curtis Brown: Third-round pick in 2011 established himself as a special-teams standout, though he may enter offseason practices behind Allen. Brown led the Steelers with 15 special-teams tackles despite missing final three games because of a knee injury.

Keenan Lewis: Started to show why Steelers used a 2009 third-round draft pick on him as he saw extensive action in the nickel package. Lewis' first career interception preserved the Steelers' 13-9 win at Kansas City.

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