LATROBE, Pa. – The Steelers have 88 players under contract as their 2011 training camp entered its third day, but the most media interest was focused on one who is neither theirs nor under contract.
Plaxico Burress visited with the Steelers on Saturday at Saint Vincent College. He had breakfast with Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, and then he met with Coach Mike Tomlin.
After being hired by the Steelers to head their personnel department, Colbert made Burress his inaugural No. 1 draft pick, and Burress spent five years in Pittsburgh before leaving as an unrestricted free agent for the New York Giants. There are still 11 players on the team's roster and five assistant coaches remaining with the Steelers today who worked with Burress during his time here.
"We haven't lost track," said Colbert. "We had to catch up where he is from a family standpoint, because when he left he didn't have any kids and now he has two. There are some things that come back as soon as you see him. There's a lot of familiarity with some of the old players, and it looked good."
Burress is best known for his catch that allowed the Giants to beat the 18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, but he also caught 261 passes for 4,164 yards and 22 touchdowns during his seasons with the Steelers. He posted back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2001-02, and he averaged 19.9 yards per catch in 2004, his one season with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"There's always a comfort zone when you know the player you might bring back, just like last year with Byron Leftwich and Larry Foote and Antwaan Randle El," said Colbert. "If you've had a guy previously, we know what to expect from him and he knows what to expect from the organization. Coach Tomlin wasn't here when Plax was, so it's more of a getting-to-know each other for those two."
At this time, however, there's a bit more to it than Burress wanting to come back to the Steelers and the Steelers willing to have him come back.
"We have some salary cap issues," said Colbert. "Coming out of an uncapped year, we knew we probably did some things that would have exceeded a salary cap had there been one in place. We always try to keep track of where we might be and the damage we could possibly occur in the future, but we knew it was unavoidable that we would have to terminate some pretty prominent players just to be in compliance with the cap."
Those terminations already have included both of the guys who were their starting tackles at the start of the 2010 season – Max Starks and Flozell Adams – plus receiver Antwaan Randle El.
"We're still trying to get into compliance with the cap, which goes into effect on Aug. 4," said Colbert. "We'll be doing some renegotiating to try to get into compliance. There still could be some further terminations and there could be some roster additions. We went into this period knowing it was going to be very fluid and that we would have to be very flexible with all of our options."
There have been reports that Burress has a $10 million offer from the Giants to return there, but the accuracy of that number is unknown. Burress visited the Giants before coming to see the Steelers.
"Demand will drive that market, and then we have to decide whether we want to be in it or not," said Colbert. "Then we have to decide, if we do get in it then what it's going to cost us on the other end? Can we handle it?"
Burress has been out of football for the last two years while serving time in prison for a weapons violation in New York City, but Colbert said the Steelers will not work him out during his time here.
"We could, but we're not going to," said Colbert. "Usually when we're dealing with veteran free agents, we've seen enough of their work. If we were to advance to a contract, we would have to do a physical to see where he is. But from what I've seen, he looks great from a conditioning standpoint. Of course, he's missed two years of football, and until he gets back on the football field nobody is going to know. I don't think a workout could accurately show where he would be. That's the risk we would have to take."
With Randle El gone, the Steelers have 11 receivers able to practice, plus Hines Ward who is on the physically unable to perform list after having thumb surgery some weeks ago. Ward and Mike Wallace are the incumbent starters, and second-year pros Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown both had productive rookie seasons and appear poised to do even better in 2011. Is there room there for Burress, and how would he fit into the group?
"That's part of the investigation that goes on today, to watch the interaction," said Colbert. "A player of that significance who has been here before, he has a lot of friends on this team. He has a lot of people he's comfortable being around. The players he doesn't know – you have to factor that in – could it affect their role? You have to weigh that just like the economics. You don't really know until you add the guy to your team, but knowing that he has been here before and knowing that a lot of our players are comfortable with him, I think it creates a pretty positive scenario.
"I don't want to get in to specifics, but Plax is interested, Drew Rosenhaus, his agent, is interested, and we're certainly interested, so where it goes we'll find out."