Free Agents, Re-Signings And The Draft
Needs May Include More Than Just Defensive Backs
By Jerry DiPaola
You've heard the talk around town, oh, since about the middle of September. It's been broadcast on the radio and television, published in the local scrolls, and spoken at the corner bar by people who aren't even intoxicated.
The word is the Steelers need defensive backs—both cornerbacks and safeties—to plug holes in a secondary that sprung leaks throughout the season and, most dangerously, in the playoffs.
Don't look now, Pittsburgh, but you also need quarterbacks and tight ends. Desperately.
While veteran tight end Mark Bruener tends to an injured knee that had microfracture surgery late last season—forcing him to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season—he notes that he is the only tight end on the team under contract.
Amazingly, backup tight ends Jerame Tuman, John Allred, Matt Cushing and Marco Battaglia have no contracts for 2003. All four are unrestricted free agents. At the moment, that makes the tight end position the weakest on the team by a wide margin.
With the emergence of Tommy Maddox as a serious and accurate downfield threat, Steelers fans felt good about their quarterback situation in 2002. But Charlie Batch and Kordell Stewart are free agents, and Stewart won't be back after his recent release.
Batch won't return until he tests the market for a starting job that he has little chance of securing in Pittsburgh. He could return to the Steelers, though, because he likes playing for his hometown team and he has become familiar with offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey's system.
For now, though, that leaves the depth to former Robert Morris University and Ford City High School quarterback Tim Levcik. After winning offensive player of the year honors in the Northeast Conference in 2000 and 2001 and throwing for an overall total of 7,222 yards and 76 touchdowns, Levcik signed last year with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted rookie. He was released in training camp. The last time Levcik threw a pass in a game that mattered was against Division I-AA mid-major Albany University at the end of the Colonials' 2001 season.
Steelers' Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert said the team will focus on offensive tackles, defensive backs, quarterbacks and tight ends in the draft and the free agency signing period, which opened February 28. But he is quick to add that the team ranks players at every position, just like they do for the draft.
That doesn't mean the Steelers will act hastily—or at all—to sign premium free agents to restock those positions. Colbert, president Dan Rooney and coach Bill Cowher will steer the team with a steady hand throughout the offseason and wait until the right match surfaces.
"You never want to make a move until you are sure it is the best thing for your team," Colbert said. "Sometimes that happens in the first week. Sometimes that might not happen until June."
But if a free agent emerges unexpectedly or less expensively than had been anticipated, the Steelers will consider making a quick strike.
They did just that two years ago when they signed center Jeff Hartings from the Detroit Lions before the end of the first week of free agency. "Hartings was probably the quickest (signing by the Steelers)," Colbert said. "In that situation, we were a little bit more urgent because of Dermontti Dawson's health, and we really didn't have a young backup on the rise that we could say, 'This guy could be our starter.'
Hartings didn't come cheaply—he has a base salary of $3 million this season—but he has been a trusted anchor on the offensive line for the past two seasons. He is clearly one of the Steelers' best free-agent signings since the system was instituted in the NFL in 1993.
Jerry DiPaola covers the Steelers and NFL for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.