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Steelers must win the salary cap guessing game

| Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005

Time to break up the Steelers.

Well, not exactly.

They did finish 16-2.

Rule No. 1 in the salary cap era, however, is to stay a step ahead of the grim reaper, who invariably snatches his share of veteran players each year and saddles their teams with suddenly bad investments.

Dead money.

It's always best to nudge a player out the door a year too early rather than a year too late. There is no place for sentimentality, none for loyalty, not even after a team wins 16 of 18 games.

It's a guessing game, and the guess here is that neither Jerome Bettis nor Jeff Hartings is likely to approximate his success of last season.

Which means that the Steelers should give each man a choice: Stay at a drastically reduced rate or feel free to test the market, which opens March 2.

Bettis realizes that the Steelers won't keep him at his current cost -- $5.48 million against the cap. He should be asked to play for about $1 million again.

As for the 32-year-old Hartings, he is a $5.478 million hit, and his ravaged left knee is a time bomb. If he isn't amenable to a 75-percent pay cut, then it's time for Chukky Okobi to step front-and-center.

Veteran defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen ($2.975 million) also should be asked to take a cut or be released. Tight end Jay Riemersma ($1.58 million) and cornerback Chad Scott ($4 million-plus) shouldn't even get the pay cut option.

The numbers are simply too high with all those players. Cheaper, younger, adequate replacements are available in all spots except defensive end, a position the Steelers should address in the draft or free agency.

Money must be freed so that the team can pursue a free agent or two, sign their own restricted free agents (Chris Hope, Larry Foote, etc.) and lengthen Hines Ward's deal.

The Steelers already made one wise decision when they indicated Tuesday that wide receiver Plaxico Burress will be free to test the market. Slapping him with the franchise tag would have meant counting him more than $7 million against the cap next season.

Burress played well last season but not well enough to warrant that kind of money.

And as director of football operations Kevin Colbert said, wide receiver generally is the most plentiful position out there.

All kinds of players can be found in all kinds of places, and size is not a prerequisite to success. The New England Patriots are proof. David Givens, David Patten, Troy Brown and Deion Branch all were drafted in rounds 2-8. None is going to play center for the offseason basketball team, either.

The Steelers will need to supplement Ward and Antwaan Randle El with a third receiver. They'll have plenty of options.

It's never wise to mortgage your future on 20-something players who haven't been entirely dependable. Burress and linebacker Kendrell Bell fit that description. Bell, also an unrestricted free agent, believes he's going to break the bank, and he might be right.

If he's wrong, perhaps the Steelers can work out a reasonable deal with him. Jason Gildon re-signed one year under a similar scenario.

Meanwhile, it might not be such a bad idea to try to bring back either Oliver Ross or Keydrick Vincent, although Vincent appears to be a goner, for sure.

It's amazing that so many people assume that Kendall Simmons and Max Starks will outclass Ross and Vincent on the right side of the offensive line. It might happen, but that latter two must have been doing something right last season, and neither Simmons nor Starks has much of a track record.

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