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In the days immediately following the 2003 NFL draft, Ike Taylor arrived in Pittsburgh from Gretna, La., a small town on the west bank of the Mississippi River. He was the Steelers’ fourth-round draft choice from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, a school about the size of IUP.

Wide-eyed, awe-struck and barely 23-years-old, Taylor -- then known by the more formal name of Ivan -- looked and sounded like someone who couldn’t believe his good fortune.

He was polite to a fault, answering every question with phrases such as “No, sir... yes, sir... thank you, sir.”

Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher saw an incredibly gifted athlete who had run the 40-yard dash in 4.18 seconds, according to several reports, and had a frame that eventually grew to 6-foot-2, 195 pounds. The Steelers also liked Taylor's swagger and willingness to learn.

Not surprisingly, Taylor was a backup for his first two seasons, occasionally catching Cowher’s ire at practice when he didn’t play up to his potential. By 2005, however, he was the Steelers’ starting cornerback, a position he has held for the past six seasons, including three Super Bowls.

Which brings us to his future and how it is directly tied to the Steelers' ability to win another championship. Taylor is ready to embark on free agency and is not afraid to talk about it in terms that the humble Ivan Taylor of ‘03 might not recognize.

“It’s definitely a unique situation,” he said before Super Bowl XLV. “I feel like I’ll be rewarded regardless of where it is. Teams know what I can do. Since ’05, I’ve been matched against the league’s best receivers.

“Given the opportunity, whenever I can make a play, that’s what I try to do. I think I’ve been doing a pretty darned good job.”

There is nothing wrong with such a confident attitude, but it sends signals to the Steelers and their fans that re-signing Taylor will be difficult and expensive.

Taylor and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley were the two most prominent players on the list of Steelers’ 18 free agents, and the Steelers made a move toward keeping Woodley on Feb. 18 when they designated him their franchise player.

If the franchise tag remains a part of the new collective bargaining agreement, that would ensure that the Steelers keep Woodley at a one-season cost of about $10 million. If the tag is eliminated under the new rules, Woodley would remain a free agent.

Losing Taylor and/or Woodley wouldn’t automatically signal a disaster—the team and coaches are too resilient to allow that to happen—but the defense would start to look like the unit of 2009, when the Steelers lost five leads in the fourth quarter.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s style depends on pressuring the quarterback with pass rushers, and cornerbacks with Taylor’s one-on-one shutdown skills give LeBeau the confidence to create more high-risk, high-reward situations. That’s what sets the Steelers’ defense apart from the rest of the league.

The Steelers have other problems, not the least of which is a roster with 16 players who are 30 or older, including 35-year-old Aaron Smith and 36-year-old James Farrior. Plus, they need to address with draft picks an offensive line that contains more survivors than stars.

But keeping Taylor and Woodley is at the top of the Steelers’ offseason to-do list.

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