Steelers keeping door open for players to return prior to free agency
INDIANAPOLIS – Backup defensive lineman Tyson Alualu was the first potential free agent to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Could more players follow suit before NFL free agency begins March 13?
“That could still happen within the next two weeks,” general manager Kevin Colbert said Wednesday at the NFL Combine. “We like our players. When you know a player it’s a greater comfort in keeping him than bringing in someone from the outside.”
Two starters are awaiting free agency: guard Ramon Foster and cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, who played ahead of Artie Burns for most of the season. Punter Jordan Berry also is an unrestricted free agent as are backups Jesse James, L.J. Fort and Anthony Chickillo, among others.
Before March 13, the Steelers also must decide whether to offer tenders to reserve guard/center B.J. Finney and tight end Xavier Grimble.
At tight end, starter Vance McDonald is the only player at the position under contract, so Colbert could make a push to bring back James, who had 30 receptions for a career-high 423 yards last season.
“Jesse is a nice complementary tight end to us,” Colbert said. “Any of our players who have an opportunity to look elsewhere where the might have a better chance to be a starter, we encourage them. Go, look, find out, keep us in the loop.
“If there is a way we can work it out that’s more beneficial to come back – great.”
Last year, the Steelers released a trio of defensive backs – Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden – on the first day of the new league season in order to create salary-cap space. The Steelers already had allocated $14.54 million with a second franchise tag on running back Le’Veon Bell, and wide receiver Antonio Brown created cap space by converting most of his 2018 salary into a signing bonus.
This year, the Steelers were about $19 million under the salary cap prior to the Alualu signing, and they’ll have more money available for free agency than in recent seasons. Still, Colbert didn’t discount the possibility of the Steelers releasing veterans already under contract. Tackle Marcus Gilbert, safety Morgan Burnett and linebacker Jon Bostic are candidates based on injuries or limited playing status in 2018. Their status could be determined by what the Steelers unearth in free agency.
“You go in with a plan and this is what our timeline may be,” Colbert said. “As it unfolds, we see where it goes. We didn’t think we could afford this player, and now we can. But that may effect us, if we do this, we know we have to subtract from the other side. It’s always a give-and-take, it’s always a balance sheet that we try to keep track of.”
Colbert didn’t provide a timetable for extending quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s contract. If the Steelers do it before mid-March, they can transfer Roethlisberger’s $5 million roster bonus into part of a signing bonus.
Colbert said the Steelers don’t need to do the Roethlisberger extension for immediate salary-cap purposes.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .