Kovacevic: Hard calls for Steelers? No, not one |

Kovacevic: Hard calls for Steelers? No, not one

The Steelers’ Keenan Lewis (right) will become the team’s top free agent priority if Mike Wallace decides to leave for another team. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Next week marks the one-year anniversary of the Steelers’ cutdown beyond compare, the cumulative release of James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward over three days. Just like that, three players who helped forge two Super Bowl titles, three powerful presences … all gone.

One can only imagine how hard — no, excruciating — those calls must have been for Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to make.

So one can further imagine their relief at having nothing of the kind this time around.

No, really.

For all the fuss in these parts that more big names might soon be booted, that James Harrison and Casey Hampton could be next, here’s what seems to be escaping notice: The Steelers won’t really have much to do with any of these calls.

Bearing in mind the deadline for Colbert and Omar Khan to slash roughly $14 million and meet the NFL’s salary cap for free agency is March 12, and that contract restructuring already in motion will mostly take care of that, let’s take a personnel inventory:

• If one assumes, as I do, that Mike Wallace will take his talent — that’s singular — to South Beach, then Keenan Lewis will be the biggest ticket at hand.

I got the sense from Lewis near season’s end he genuinely wants to stay, but he just as genuinely wants to be paid. Thus, he, like the rest of the Steelers’ pending free agents, should be expected to test the open market.

This is about as close as the Steelers will come to a hard call. Lewis had a strong first season as a starter, and he’ll deserve what he gets. But the top 10 corners in the league made $8 million or more. If Lewis is offered anything in that stratosphere, I’m backing off. The Steelers need to pick a number, then hold to it.

That’s no dig at Lewis. Rather, it’s a two-pronged consideration that Cortez Allen showed late in the season he can handle corner, too, and that Allen — unlike everyone else on this defense — could take the ball away more than once per lunar cycle.

It would be wonderful to have Lewis back, but the Steelers can’t — and don’t need to — overpay.

• Rashard Mendenhall, Max Starks, Ramon Foster, Larry Foote, Wallace and the rest of the pending free agents will test the market, too. Mendenhall won’t be — and shouldn’t be — welcomed back, but the Steelers surely would retain Starks, Foster and Foote at the right price.

Trouble is, that’s realistic only with Foote. Teams need offensive linemen. Starks will get paid, and Foster will get his wish for a starting role. If Foote returns, it will be at a far lower rate than his 2012 cap hit of $3.6 million. Maybe even the NFL’s minimum of $940,000.

The market will dictate all this far more than the Steelers.

• Hampton played better than most seem to realize this past season, but he’ll turn 36 in December. Just as significant, Steve McLendon made enough splash plays at nose tackle that he eminently deserves to start. If Hampton gets a two-year offer somewhere or is promised a starting role, he should grab it and run. But if all he hears is one year, he’ll likely stay.

With all respect to Hampton’s achievements, the Steelers would be crazy to offer more.

• Harrison’s play steadily improved right through season’s end, but he’ll be 35. If the Steelers were to cut him and the two years left on his contract — that’s $6.57 million in 2013, $7.58 million in 2014 — they’d save $5.1 million in a cap hit for 2013.

That’s attractive, sure, but is it worth it?

No way. Not with a wobbly, brittle Jason Worilds next in line. And most especially not with a glaring need for someone, anyone, to rush the passer until the real LaMarr Woodley rematerializes.

Harrison’s agent, Bill Parise, has squawked about how his client shouldn’t take a pay cut. The Steelers, naturally, would prefer a pay cut to a restructuring. But they’re also smart enough to realize another team will pay Harrison at his existing terms.

Here’s betting all concerned will wait for other matters to be settled, then work out a deal that helps the team manage the cap and protect itself against injury. This might linger until Latrobe.

Even here, the Steelers really don’t have much of a call to make.

If Harrison wants to stay with the team that gave him a chance as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State, the one with which he was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, the one with which he pounded out 100 yards for the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history, it’ll get worked out.

If he wants to be stubborn, well, then we will see another big cutdown.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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