With the NFL Owners Meetings set to begin shortly, General Manager Kevin Colbert began his stay in Orlando the same way he began the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis – by answering questions posed by a segment of the media in town for the event, and in doing so he reiterated that he remains confident a long-term contract agreement with Le'Veon Bell can happen.
Colbert said there is nothing new to report at this point, but that this apparent inactivity has more to do with the NFL calendar than an unwillingness by one side or the other to continue to negotiate.
"At this point, after we tagged Le'Veon, we move into other matters of free agency," said Colbert of the process that began at 4 p.m. on March 14. "We (also) continue with draft preparation, so it's really not anything we're choosing to ignore, its just the circumstances of other things that need to taken care of at the moment. Free agency takes precedence, but we're also trying to keep up with our draft operation as well."
To recap the action from our last episode, the Steelers placed the exclusive franchise tag on Bell – the same strategy the team employed last year – which meant an immediate salary cap charge of $14.54 million when the new league year began simultaneously with the opening of free agency. There had been some saber-rattling previous to the official placing of the tag on Bell, but Colbert said that he believes the door remains open on the elusive long-term arrangement.
"I think so," said Colbert when asked if he was confident a deal could get done.
"I mean we are where we are," he added. "We're not intentionally ignoring that. It's just that more urgent business needs to be taken care of, and again, we'll reassess where that is. We're going to reassess where his interests are as well. Again, I anticipate us continuing that process once it gets through the free agency period, and maybe even through the draft, because the draft can change things on both sides."
Part of that urgent business involved the team becoming salary cap compliant, which entailed releasing veteran defensive backs Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden, and William Gay, along with restructuring a bunch of contracts to create space by converting salary into bonuses to lower individual cap charges. Those moves also freed up enough room to sign a couple of free agents, and the Steelers took advantage by adding inside linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Morgan Burnett.
"We obviously had to make some cap adjustments to get in compliance," said Colbert, "and in doing that we had to look at all alternatives. Fortunately, there was a guy available to us we felt was a good alternative in Morgan Burnett. He was affordable, and we were able to get the deal done with both sides being agreeable."
The Steelers ended their 2017 season needing to upgrade their defensive depth chart at both inside linebacker because of the injury to Ryan Shazier and at safety because of a lack of consistent production. They also needed to become salary cap compliant, and Colbert said the moves the team made to deal with each category weren't necessarily made in tandem.
"We just let it play out," said Colbert. "When we looked at the market we knew that we were only going to be able to do certain things within our own limitations. After we made the reductions on our own roster and as the market unfolded, we reacted to it and we were happy to get Burnett and Jon Bostic."
And the additions of Bostic and Burnett won't have a major impact on what the Steelers do during the April 26-28 NFL Draft, according to Colbert.
"No, it really doesn't (change the strategy in the draft) because anything we did (in free agency) we always prefaced it with it won't change our draft strategies," said Colbert. "And again, that is unfolding as we go through this thing every day as well. It won't change anything we're thinking about. Obviously, we have different people on the team now, but we're still preparing (for the draft) as we do every year offensively, defensively, and special teams to see how we can best improve the team."
Colbert also was asked about the status of Martavis Bryant, because he stated unequivocally at the Combine that there would be no trade, and whether the insanity that gripped the veteran quarterback market at the onset of free agency could impact Ben Roethlisberger's future with the team.
"Martavis is with us. There may be inquiries that come along, but we have no intention of trading him," said Colbert. "With that being said, when we get into the draft preparation, we contact every team every year and we always exchange 'what are you looking for,' and 'what might be available,' just so we have that type of information going into the draft, but right now we have no intention of trading him."
Roethlisberger said after the season that he has an interest in playing for three more years, and his current contract expires after two. The Steelers do consider extending contracts for their quarterbacks when the current deal has two years remaining, and so that window is open.
"I think every position throughout free agency, when the cap increases, so does each position's costs increase as well," said Colbert. "So we watch it. We monitor it, and when we get into specific negotiations, we have to honor where things are. But there's nothing you can do as the markets develop. You have to just wait until it's the appropriate time to deal with each player and see where things might go and where they might be when you add another person."
Colbert also addressed the chances of the Steelers rescinding Bell's franchise tag, and whether the team plans to spend any of the offseason preparing for a repeat of him skipping all of training camp and the preseason before signing the tender, as he did in 2017.
"I would never remove anything from possibility," said Colbert about rescinding the tag. "Is it a probability? No,"
About a repeat of waiting until days before the regular season opener to sign the tender, Colbert said, "No, we'll react to that when we react to it if that would occur. Hopefully it doesn't. Hopefully Le'Veon comes to training camp. Hopefully he's a part of a winning team in 2018. We'll react to every situation as it presents itself, but we're never going to sit around and talk about what-ifs. We'll just react when a what-if becomes a reality."