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Steelers facing contract issues

By John Harris
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, July 27, 2008

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Take a good, long look at the 2008 Steelers.

There's a strong possibility the Steelers team that reports for training camp today at St. Vincent College in Latrobe will have a vastly different look in 2009.

A total of 14 players, including starters such as linebacker James Farrior and offensive tackle Marvel Smith, are entering the final year of their contracts.

If those players don't sign before the Sept. 7 opener against Houston at Heinz Field, it's unlikely they'll remain with the Steelers beyond this season. The Steelers don't negotiate contracts during the season, and once the players become free agents, it is more than likely that they would sign elsewhere.

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"There are a lot of decisions to be made that could make or break the team," Farrior said.

Making contract negotiations potentially more difficult is the Steelers' unsettled ownership situation. Chairman Dan Rooney and son and president Art Rooney II are attempting to keep the franchise under family control, while Dan's four brothers want to get out of the NFL and focus their attention on their racetracks and other businesses.

The situation leaves questions. Will the team rush to re-sign players if the Steelers are worth more money with fewer contracts on the books?

Moreover, will Dan Rooney's attempt to restructure team ownership leave him and Art Rooney II with enough time before the start of the season to get key players signed?

In addition to Farrior and Smith, the list of players up for contract renewal includes cornerback Bryant McFadden and backup quarterback Charlie Batch, who also are entering the final year of their deals.

Tackle Willie Colon, safety Anthony Smith and receiver Willie Reid are entering their third seasons - and in the final year of their contracts - and could be retained as restricted free agents in 2009.

Guard Chris Kemoeatu, tackles Max Starks and Trai Essex and wide receiver Nate Washington will be unrestricted free agents after next season. And linebacker Arnold Harrison, cornerback Anthony Madison and defensive back Grant Mason are working on one-year contracts.

In addition, defensive end Brett Keisel, nose tackle Casey Hampton, running back Willie Parker, linebacker James Harrison and cornerback Deshea Townsend will have one year remaining on their deals entering 2009.

That's a lot of important players whose contract status could be up in the air, leaving Steelers ownership with plenty of tough decisions to make over the next two seasons.

"We've got to trust the people in charge to do the right thing and keep the team intact," said Farrior, a six-year starter with the Steelers. "Whoever's got to go, they've got to go."

The emergence of linebacker Lawrence Timmons could make Farrior expendable after this season. When faced with a similar situation as a member of the New York Jets, Farrior recorded a career-high 175 tackles and had two interceptions, three forced fumbles and defended nine passes. Upon leaving the Jets, Farrior signed with the Steelers.

"When I was in that situation with the Jets coming into my last year, I didn't really focus on it," Farrior said.

Meanwhile, McFadden said he is focused on trying to beat out Townsend for the starting cornerback job opposite Ike Taylor, not getting a new contract.

"As far as the last year of the deal, that's just part of the business," he said. "That's up to my agent and the Steelers.

"Regardless, if it was the first or last year, each offseason you're trying to get better and be better than what you did the season before. That is our major emphasis right now. I don't think that will be a distraction at all."

Farrior believes a strong performance on the field will result in financial rewards for the players.

"Even if the team doesn't plan on keeping us around," he said, "we've got (31) other teams to be playing for."

John Harris can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.
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