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Steelers' Porter deserves to come back

| Saturday, Feb. 17, 2007

Joey Porter is a player who elicits varying emotions from Steelers fans. He has a big mouth, plus he had a bad year, the argument goes. He loves to talk, but he usually backs it up.

A so-called bad year still resulted in Porter racking up a team-high seven sacks. Playing in two fewer games than the previous season because of a hamstring injury -- he also was coming off offseason knee surgery -- Porter had three more tackles but 3 1/2 fewer sacks in 2006.

Love him or hate him, Porter remains a defensive presence and is the Steelers' best outside linebacker.

Of course, with new coach Mike Tomlin, the roster is subject to change. But getting rid of Porter for change's sake is not the solution.

There aren't too many linebackers who can play the run, rush the passer and sprint stride for stride with a running back or tight end. Porter can. He's also great in the locker room and has a firm understanding of his role in the defense. However, it's a defense that could undergo major changes in personnel as well as in terms of scheme.

Porter's sacks were down in 2006. That's not a good sign for a linebacker who relies on his speed and quickness.

Porter also isn't getting any younger. He turns 30 on March 22, 16 days after he's due to receive a $1 million roster bonus.

NFL teams are more likely to pay for a player approaching his upside than one who could be nearing his downside. That could be why the Steelers haven't given Porter the new deal he asked for last season after they won Super Bowl XL.

Normally, the Steelers like to re-sign their core players one year early. That was the case last season with cornerback Ike Taylor, and it will likely be the case this offseason with safety Troy Polamalu and guard Alan Faneca.

Porter, who is entering the final year of a contract that will pay him $4 million in 2007, can make a valid argument. He's an all-around linebacker whose game shouldn't be based solely on sacks.

In addition to leading the team in sacks, Porter was third in quarterback hurries (12), seventh in passes defensed (five) and had two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown.

"In our system, you're going to be asked to do everything," Porter said in November. "You're going to have to cover. You're going to have to play man-to-man with the tight end. You're going to have to know how to do a vertical drop. You're going to have to know how to do zone schemes. When I'm doing all that stuff, you can't be asking for sacks. I'm playing the scheme.

"If I don't get too many sacks, (critics) are going to say I had a bad year. I don't look at it that way."

The Steelers might. So don't be surprised if Porter is released if it's believed his skills are in decline, and he's no longer deserving of the big bucks.

If the Steelers do pay Porter's roster bonus next month, it means management is committed to him for at least one more season at a salary cap hit of $6.1 million. That's a lot of cash and a reassuring commitment to Porter.

Porter badly wants an extension, but the Steelers could be dangling a carrot in the form of a new contract if he delivers in 2007. A lot of players have a productive year during the season in which their contract ends.

The Steelers as currently constructed have one or two more seasons to make a serious championship run before making some major changes. Unless the Steelers sign an accomplished veteran linebacker in free agency, Porter deserves to remain a big part of that nucleus.

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