Steelers are gearing up for free-agent frenzy
Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The quiet that has pervaded Steelers' headquarters for most of the offseason is now the calm before the storm.

A new NFL labor deal appears to be imminent it could be reached Thursday and that means the Steelers will soon have to take multitasking to another level.

Director of football operations Kevin Colbert will likely have days, not weeks and months, to signs free agents and draft picks before the start of preseason practice.

The Steelers, who are preparing for a 46th consecutive training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, have a sizable to-do list even if they just concentrate largely on their own free agents.

Ike Taylor, the team's best cornerback, will be an unrestricted free agent. Willie Colon, who started 54 consecutive games at right tackle before an injury sidelined him, is almost certain to have the same status once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

Signing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley to a long-term contract the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him prior to the start of the lockout will be a top priority, and the Steelers may have to do some financial massaging because they are an estimated $10 million over what the salary cap has been projected to be under the terms of the new CBA.

Colbert has declined interview requests until the lockout is lifted. But it seems pretty safe to assume that he and the Steelers have done everything they can to prepare for free agency, given how little they've had to do during the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.

"Teams have already done their homework," said agent Doug Hendrickson, whose clients include Woodley. "They've had different charts up and teams know what they're looking for and especially since the draft ended they know what needs they have, so I don't think there's going to be utter chaos."

Controlled chaos may be more apropos, even for the Steelers, who also have a handful of complementary players that are going to be unrestricted free agents in addition to Taylor and Colon.

The start of free agency, typically in early March, is always marked by a flurry of signings and that is not expected to change. The difference this year is that the signing period may only precede reporting dates to training camp by a couple of days. That means there won't be a lot of time for teams to court prospective free agents.

"It's going to be very akin to speed dating," said agent Joe Linta, a Freeport native who represents Colon. "The negotiators and the agents are going to have to understand, 'Look, let's get in the ballpark, get it done.' "

Signing undrafted free agents and draft picks shouldn't be problematic, especially since a rookie wage cap will likely be in play.

Top-tier free agents will also be signed quickly, Pittsburgh-based agent Ralph Cindrich said. What is harder to project, Cindrich said, is what happens to the players who are not marquee free agents.

"I think each team knows what they have to do, the minimum they have to accomplish," Cindrich said. "They'll look at the time frame and whatever the rules require, they'll get it done."

There are a lot of unknowns about free agency this year, from what the rules will be once a CBA is in place to how the lockout will affect the value of free agents that would have otherwise had an entire offseason to get acclimated to a new team.

And then there is the reality at how much quicker teams are going to have to move during free agency this year.

"Mistakes are going to be made that would not normally be made," said Rochester-based agent Bill Parise, who represents Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison. "They're going to keep somebody that they would normally need to let go. They're going to let someone go that they should have kept. It's going to be a really intense period. I'm planning on sequestering myself."

"Speed dating."