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Where Do Steelers Go From Here?

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The Post-Gazette is calling it the March Massacre. Being a rabid fan of the television series “Lost,” I prefer to refer to it as the Purge. In a span of three days, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut four veterans who combined had logged over forty seasons in the Black & Gold. Going back a little less than a month, the Steelers cut a total of six players, five of whom at one time or another had been mainstays in the starting line-up.

The latest veteran to get the axe is in some ways the most significant. Linebacker James Farrior was rumored to be on the chopping block since his age (37) and salary ($3.25 million) didn’t appear to fit with the team’s current youth movement. Still, Potsie’s exit comes as a mild surprise because even though his play had obviously declined, he remained a key member of the defense. Farrior’s helmet bore the Mr. Yuck sticker signifying that he alone was Dick LeBeau‘s on-field game general. Of the six players released during the Purge, Farrior is the only one who was still a regular starter at the end of 2011.

Steeler Nation doesn’t need reminded that their team isn’t big on free agency. Whereas some teams live to “win the off-season” (I’m looking at you, Jerry Jones and Danny Snyder), the Steelers have traditionally built from within. When they do sign the occasional free agent, it’s usually a second tier name brought in to provide depth. The major signings are so few and far between, most Steeler fans have no problem listing them off the top of their head.

James Farrior is unarguably the best free agent signing in team history. A 1997 first round pick by the New York Jets (as a senior, he would play against his future head coach, Mike Tomlin), Farrior was considered a bust when the Steelers signed him in 2003. Two years later, Potsie made his first Pro Bowl and finished second to Baltimore’s Ed Reed in voting for Defensive Player of the Year. From that point on, Farrior was the anchor of the Steelers defense. While he wasn’t as flashy as Troy Polamalu and didn’t pile up the gaudy statistics some of the outside ‘backers accrued, Farrior quietly excelled as the glue that held everything together. A tackling machine, he was a big part of the team’s outstanding run defense although perhaps his greatest contribution was as defensive captain, where his football intelligence earned him the responsibility of calling out the signals/audibles.

That we’re still talking about Farrior is a tribute to his perseverance. He suffered through a miserable 2009 campaign, looking old, slow and done. In 2010, he somehow managed to stuff Father Time in a locker while he played a pivotal role in one last Super Bowl run. His rejuvenation was only temporary, however, as in 2011 he once again began to show his age, struggling mightily against speedy backs and quick tight ends. After the season opening debacle in Baltimore, LeBeau began platooning Farrior and Larry Foote, a clear signal that the team was well aware of his decline.

While injuries and lack of suitable replacement allowed Farrior to remain a starter throughout the season, the Steelers have options for 2012. Foote is only 31 and while he doesn’t have Farrior’s football IQ and is a huge liability in pass coverage, he could serve as a stop-gap if the team were to draft an ILB of the future (Alabama’s Donte Hightower for example). Stevenson Sylvester saw some significant playing time during the season and while Sly didn’t exactly distinguish himself, sometimes it takes a young player a year or two for the light bulb to flick on. Of course, the Steelers could also *gasp* use free agency to sign a cheap veteran to serve as insurance. A Dan Connor or Ernie Sims would fit in nicely next to Lawrence Timmons, although given LeBeau’s complicated defense, it would be impossible to expect any newbie to take over signal calling duties.

With the Purge evidently complete (somewhere, Casey Hampton spits out a mouthful of cheeseburger while sighing in relief), the Steelers are now around $9-12 million under the cap. We’ll know for sure how much money they have to play with when the NFLPA gets around to actually setting a cap number for 2012. The Steelers have to sign a half dozen restricted free agents (Isaac Redman, Ramon Foster, Keenan Lewis, Ryan Mundy) which shouldn’t cost them more than five million total. Of course, the big fish is Mike Wallace, who is no doubt looking to get Hines Ward money ($4-6 million). The Steelers are going to try and get him for the tender price ($2.5 million) although that number makes it really tempting for another team to steal him. Honestly, I might go as high as four for Wallace but if he wants a penny more, I’d let him walk run and not lose a minute’s sleep. This team has holes to fill at LB, OL, RB and WR and they simply can’t afford to break the bank to keep any single player, even one as talented as Wallace.

Nobody is untouchable. Ask Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior.