Probably the biggest question facing the Pittsburgh Steelers this off-season is what to do with nose tackle Casey Hampton.
Hampton is an unrestricted free agent this off-season. As an unrestricted free agent, Hampton is free to negotiate with any NFL team, and the Steelers would not have the option of matching the offer. Moreover, unlike with restricted free agents, the Steelers would not receive compensatory draft picks if another team were to sign Hampton. He would just be gone. And the Steelers would get nothing in return. Kind of like when Alan Faneca left the team as an unrestricted free agent.
So what should the Steelers do?
Before we answer that question, we first have to establish just how important Casey Hampton is to the Steelers. Of the 5 key free agents (Hampton, Ryan Clark, Willie Colon, Willie Parker and Jeff Reed), Hampton is by far the most important. This is true for two key reasons. Firstly, the nose tackle is the foundation of the 3-4 defense. I wrote an article last year that explains this fact (click here to view the article). The second reason that Hampton is so import is that finding a replacement in the draft is exceedingly difficult.
I don’t want to talk about the NFL draft yet, but I will say that I think this is a very bad year for nose tackles. I like Tennessee’s Dan Williams. I think he is going to be a 1st round draft pick. I’m not as fond of Terence Cody, from Alabama. Fans have been slobbering over Cody on Steelers message boards. However, Cody has issues. While he is a gargantuan player (6’4″, 370 lbs.), he has always struggled with conditioning (translation: he’s a fat slob who gets winded much too quickly). At best, he is a two down player. I can just see coach Tomlin placing Cody on the physically unable to perform (P.U.P.) list……..permanently.
So understanding how important Hampton is to the defense, and realizing how hard he will be to replace, the Steelers have a limited number of options.
The option that Hampton would prefer is that the Steelers offer him a long-term contract.
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Ken Zuckerman, an agent for Priority Sports & Entertainment, said a player of Hampton’s caliber might command a five-year deal worth as much as $40 million on the open market.
Zuckerman also said that almost half of that money would be guaranteed.
The problem is that Hampton will be 33 years old next season. A five-year deal would lock him in until he’s 38 years old. He is very unlikely to play that long.
Assuming the Steelers don’t want to make a long-term commitment to Hampton, but want to maintain his services until they can find a suitable replacement, they could always place the franchise tag on him.
A franchise tag would prevent Hampton from hitting the open market when the free agent signing period begins on March 5, 2010.
Rather than hitting the open market, the Steelers would retain Hampton’s services for one year, and would be obligated to pay him the average of the top 5 salaries made by defensive linemen in 2009. That figure hasn’t yet been released by the NFL Players Association, but last year the cost of franchising a defensive tackle was slightly more than $6 million. Hampton counted for $6,652,000 against the Steelers’ salary cap last year, so franchising him wouldn’t cause much of a change.
However, Hampton has gone on the record to let the organization know that if they apply the franchise tag to him, “it will be a problem”.
Hampton knows that this may be his last opportunity to get a long-term contract, and he doesn’t want to lose it. A franchise tag would delay a long-term deal for an additional year and reduce his chances of getting one.
If the Steelers did place a franchise tag on Hampton, they would have to choose whether to use the exclusive or non-exclusive franchise tag. The exclusive tag would prevent Hampton from negotiating with other teams. The non-exclusive tag would allow him to negotiate with other teams. However, the Steelers would have the right to match any offer that he receives, and if they decline to match the offer, they would get two first-round picks in return.
Another option available to the Steelers is to place the transition tag on Hampton. The transition tag is similar to the non-exclusive franchise tag. The transition tag allows the player to negotiate with other teams, and gives the Steelers the right to match any offers that he receives. However, if they didn’t choose to match the offer, they would get no draft picks as compensation.
Hampton has publicly stated that the Steelers promised not to place the franchise tag on him. If so, then the Rooneys might feel obligated to uphold their promise.
I don’t know whether any promises were made to Hampton or not. But if I were the Steelers, I would definitely not use any option that allows Hampton to walk away without any form of compensation. That’s what happened to Alan Faneca, and is probably what is going to happen to Willie Parker, and I think that is poor decision making.
If I were the Steelers, I would place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Hampton. That way, if the Steelers did commit to allow Hampton to test free agency, they would still be upholding their promise. However, if Hampton ended up leaving, the Steelers would get two first round picks as compensation. That would allow the Steelers a lot of flexibility in the 2011 draft.
In the interim, the Steelers could use Chris Hoke as the starter. Hoke is no Hampton, but he fills in admirably when Hampton needs to take a breather. He actually started 12 games in 2004 (including 2 playoff games) when Hampton tore his ACL.
By utilizing the non-exclusive franchise tag on Hampton, the Steelers would potentially maintain his services for 2010, but they could also select a nose tackle in the draft. Since very few Steelers defensive draft picks are able to play in Dick LeBeau’s defense during their rookie year, this plan would allow the Steelers time for a rookie to learn the defense.
Of course, I’ve learned over the years that it is impossible to guess what the Steelers are going to do in the draft. I’m sure the Steelers will do something that I never even thought of (like sign Hampton to a 3 year deal and draft a tight end in the first round of the draft).
But of course that is why this time of year is so much fun. The Steelers always keep us guessing.
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