February 10, 2009
By Donald Starver
After dealing with the offensive linemen, Bryant McFadden, and Nate Washington, the next position that Kevin Colbert is going to have to turn his attention to is backup quarterback. Both Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch are unrestricted free agents. The Steelers will still have Dennis Dixon under contract, but they probably won’t feel comfortable placing the Steelers’ season on his inexperienced shoulders if Big Ben gets hurt. Thus, resigning either Leftwich or Batch is going to be imperative.
At this point in their careers, there is no doubt that Byron Leftwich is the better quarterback. However, Leftwich is only one year older than Ben Roethlisberger, and he thinks he still has a future as a starter in the NFL. He knows that he won’t get to compete for that position with the Steelers, so he will probably choose to go elsewhere.
Charlie Batch, on the other hand, is from the Pittsburgh area, and he would like to spend the rest of his career with the Steelers. He understand that he has the ideal job. He gets to collect Super Bowl rings with the team that he grew up cheering for, make more money than most people can even dream of making, and rarely have to even get his jersey dirty. Not a bad deal for a 34 year old quarterback. Unlike Byron Leftwich, Batch knows that his days as a starter are over, and he will do whatever it takes to stay with the Steelers. He’s going to tell his agent to get this deal done.
So next year, I’d expect to enter the season with Ben as the starter, Batch as the backup, and the Steelers will probably bring in an undrafted free agent or a 6th or 7th round draft pick to compete with Dennis Dixon for the third string quarterback position.
The final unrestricted free agent that the Steelers will have to take care of is Keyaron Fox. Fox will probably never be a starting linebacker for the Steelers. However, he is a very competent backup, and a terror on special teams. Fox emerged as one of my favorite Steelers, and that is difficult to do as primarily a special teamer. But the Steelers were terrible on special teams for quite some time, and Fox has been a big factor in their turnaround. With a salary of less than $500,000, Fox was one of the better values on the Steelers’ roster.
After languishing for years in that football Hell called the Kansas City Chiefs, Fox probably understands that he has a great situation in Pittsburgh. He is a valued contributor on a team that has the potential to win more Super Bowl rings. Moreover, he sees that the Rooneys run a class organization. My guess is that he will want to remain a Steeler. I also believe that Kevin Colbert and the Steelers coaching staff will want to see him stay as well. Thus, this deal should get done quickly and quietly.
With the unrestricted free agents taken care of, Colbert will turn his attention to the restricted free agents. We’ve already discussed Willie Colon in Part 1 of this series. After him, the most visible restricted free agent is Anthony Smith. When Smith was drafted, I had high hopes for him. However, his act has worn thin. He has never really shown anything on the field (except that he is easily fooled by a pump fake). Fans and coaches won’t soon forget his silly prediction against the New England Patriots a few years back. They also won’t forget watching Tom Brady throw touchdown after touchdown at Smith’s expense. Smith just doesn’t seem to understand that his role is to be the last line of defense, and that he can’t bite on every pump fake that quarterbacks throw at him.
Frankly, I want to see Smith leave because I am tired of watching him try to take his own receivers’ heads off during training camp. I don’t know why he thinks that he can prove his worth by showing how hard he can hit his own teammates. The Steelers can’t afford to lose Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, or Nate Washington to injury because Anthony Smith was trying to prove how tough he is. Everybody but Smith understands this simple point. Besides, can anyone ever remember seeing Anthony Smith get a good hit on ANY player who wasn’t wearing black and gold? Ever? Even once? Neither can I. Goodbye Anthony. don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
The 3 remaining restricted free agents are LB Arnold Harrison, TE/FB Sean McHugh, and CB Anthony Madison. None of these players are going to get much attention in free agency. Harrison might be able to get some attention as a special teamer or as a backup LB, but that’s about it. All of them will be best served doing everything that they can to stay with the Steelers. Afterall, if they want to win additional championships, there aren’t many organizations that give them a better opportunity to do so than the Steelers.
In my opinion, losing any of these players won’t be a major loss to the organization. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has a tight end fetish, and he collects as many of them as he possibly can. Therefore, he is likely to try to keep McHugh, even though most fans would probably prefer to see the Steelers get a legitimate blocking fullback (as opposed to a tight end playing out of position).
Harrison (Arnold, not James) is a good special teams player, and he is a good backup LB. He has spent several years in Dick LeBeau’s defensive system, and he should know it pretty well by now. Unfortunately, the Steelers are busting at the seams with talented linebackers. Lawrence Timmons is going to supplant Larry Foote next year, and Bruce Davis has a lot of potential and will probably move ahead of Arnold Harrison on the depth chart next year if he continues to work hard. The Steelers will probably keep Harrison if they can sign him for reasonable dollars. But if he asks for too much money, the Steelers will let him go without losing any sleep.
Anthony Madison is a career special teamer. Technically, he is a cornerback. However, in his 3 year career, he has never started a game, has never made an interception, and has never even had a single pass defensed. He only makes approximately $450,000, so if he is willing to sign a new contract for the same amount, the Steelers will probably keep him around. However, his position will be one of the most vulnerable come training camp.
That will take care of Colbert’s free agents. However, his most pressing problem is not his free agents. He has 9 important players with one year left on their contracts. Among them are Hines Ward, James Harrison, Heath Miller, Ryan Clark, and Brett Keisel. We’ll discuss what Kevin Colbert should do with these players in Part 3 of our series.
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