Steelers plan to meet with Super Bowl MVP
The Steelers won't be waiting at the airport with a contract and pen, but they are planning to visit next week with free-agent safeties Dexter Jackson of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cory Hall of the Cincinnati Bengals.
If Jackson and Hall sufficiently impress Steelers coaches and officials when they arrive at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side, one of them could become part of the team's 2003 secondary. Most likely, the Steelers will gather as much information as possible during the visits, and continue their methodical search through free agency. The Steelers will consider several safeties before settling on a replacement for strong safety Lee Flowers, but Jackson and Hall seem to head the list for now.
Jackson was scheduled to arrive in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Hall's trip was planned for Monday.
The Steelers allowed an average of 216.3 passing yards per game last season, finishing 20th in the NFL, their worst ranking in that category since 1991.
Jackson, 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, is the reigning Super Bowl MVP after intercepting two passes and returning them 34 yards against the Oakland Raiders. Hall, 6-0, 213, was under the direction of Steelers safeties coach Darren Perry last season when Perry held the same job with the Bengals.
While the Steelers were only talking about fixing their pass defense Friday, the first day of the free agency signing period, they actually did something about their depth problem at tight end, signing backup Jerame Tuman to a three-year, $3.3 million contract.
Tuman, 6-4, 270, entered free agency as one of four Steelers tight ends without a contract. He didn't bother to test the market.
"It came to a point where I thought that may have to be the only way," Tuman said. "But it was never something I wanted to do. All along, (re-signing with the Steelers) is what I wanted. I'm very thankful I got the chance to continue playing here."
Tuman, who received a $600,000 signing bonus, will count $730,000 against this year's salary cap, only about $163,000 more than his cap charge last season. He will earn base salaries of $530,000, $920,000 and $1.25 million. The contract also includes various incentives.
The Steelers are hoping that Tuman will assume his accustomed backup role behind starter Mark Bruener, who missed the final four games and playoffs last season after suffering a knee injury that required surgery Dec. 3. Bruener, who has missed the end of three of the past four seasons with injuries, is counting on making a full recovery.
"Bruener is our starter and I'm here to help the team in any way I can," Tuman said.
Tuman has 12 career catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season. After recording four receptions for 63 yards and one score last season, he caught a touchdown pass in the playoff victory against the Cleveland Browns.
Signing Tuman was an important move for the Steelers, who entered the signing period with only one tight end -- Bruener -- under contract. Tight ends John Allred, Matt Cushing and Marco Battaglia are free agents.
The Steelers have made a one-year, $450,000 contract offer to Cushing, who is entering his fourth season.
Jackson, a fourth-round pick in 1999, played free safety for the Buccaneers, but often lined up like a strong safety to support the run. That allowed the Buccaneers to get creative with strong safety John Lynch and confuse the offense. The Arizona Cardinals are also interested in Jackson.
Jackson recorded 86 tackles, with three interceptions, one fumble recovery and 10 pass breakups last season.
Hall, 26, has played free and strong safety for the Bengals. He also has attracted interest from the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, and he also has not ruled out a return to Cincinnati.