The NFL Scouting Combine begins a week from tomorrow – on Wednesday, Feb. 18 – but there still are plenty of things to occupy General Manager Kevin Colbert's time between now and then.
In a sit-down with selected media at the Steelers practice facility this afternoon, Colbert said the team will have meetings in the next few days to finalize opinion on what to do about pursuing its 11 unrestricted free agents, about how and whom the team might target once free agency begins, and he also revealed that the Steelers have begun discussions with Ben Roethlisberger on a contract extension.
"Ben is entering (the final year of his current contract)," said Colbert, "and as (Steelers President) Art Rooney II stated in the past, we've prioritized signing Ben this offseason. I can say that we have begun discussions with him. There is no timetable on it. It could happen quickly. It could take a little while. As I have always said, when you have two parties who are real interested in getting the same goal achieved, it usually goes quicker than not."
Roethlisberger, who will be 33 on March 2, just completed his 11th NFL season, and statistically it was his best. He tied Drew Brees for the NFL lead in passing yards with 4,952, and he posted career bests in attempts with 608, in completions with 408, in completion percentage with a 67.1, his 32 touchdown passes tied his career high, and his nine interceptions were the fewest in any of his seasons in which he played all 16 games.
"I think Ben is a franchise quarterback who is getting better with age," said Colbert. "You have seen it with a couple of great players who are still playing in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Their games have certainly not deteriorated. I really think Ben is going to be a better quarterback down the road than he has been up to this point. I think that's his goal, too."
Colbert said the idea then is to help the Steelers' franchise quarterback be better by surrounding him with better players. He mentioned the production and the promise of running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant as being a factor in that, but Colbert didn't limit that part of the discussion to offensive players.
Improving the defense is another way to help the franchise quarterback be better, and Colbert said this draft class looks to be well-stocked with outside linebackers and cornerbacks, two areas of need for the Steelers. The evaluation of those draft-eligible players continues next week in Indianapolis, and in the days between now and then Colbert and his scouts plus Coach Mike Tomlin and his staff will be hammering out a plan of attack for the Steelers' free-agents-to-be.
"When we do the player exit interviews (after the season), Coach Tomlin has a discussion with them, and I'll talk to most of them before they get out of the building," said Colbert. "I can say that almost to a man, I'd be shocked if all of them didn't want to stay. I think they all would like the opportunity to be able to stay. That doesn't mean that they won't field other offers and see what else is out there. In the end I think that the majority of them will want to be here."
Then the issue becomes whether the Steelers want them to stay, and then it's can the sides come to agreement on a contract.
Because the Steelers have just two outside linebackers under contract at the moment – Jarvis Jones, who was a No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, and Howard Jones, an undrafted rookie in 2014 who recently signed a futures contract – Colbert admitted he is concerned about the depth there.
"Worilds is a free agent. James Harrison is a free agent, as is Arthur Moats. We are worried about it today, but I feel comfortable that we will be fine once we get to August," said Colbert. "There will be good candidates. Even looking ahead to the draft, that's probably one of the positions that's potentially strong, and I say potentially because outside linebackers for the most part are projections. Until we get to the Combine and see real numbers and see athleticism going from a defensive lineman to a linebacker, and seeing the pro days, and putting all that information together, (it's a projection). But right now there are a nice group of candidates for that position."
Re-signing Jason Worilds certainly would alleviate the depth issue at the position, and he can become an unrestricted free agent on March 10 after playing the 2014 season under the transition player designation of $9.754 million.
"Jason had a good year for us last year," said Colbert. "He's still a young player. He's probably still an ascending player. I don't think you've seen the best of him, either with the Steelers or as a potential player for someone else's team. He's definitely someone we will consider keeping. We will see where the market goes."
Making the numbers work is usually what determines the outcomes of most of these situations, and the Steelers – just like all other NFL teams – are left to speculate on what the 2015 salary cap number will be. Colbert believes that number will be revealed a few days before the official start of free agency, and in the meantime, the Steelers will be spending their time trying to prepare for every eventuality.
"Coach Tomlin and I have daily discussions about our team and what we think," said Colbert. "Tomorrow it will be a more formal approach, where we not only start talking about potential free agents, but we also grade our own team as each position coach comes in (to join the discussion). We actually have time to sit down and talk to them and get their thoughts. Then we put our thoughts together and talk about our own players and how we see them going forward. Through the free agency meetings, we will also be evaluating our own team and making those decisions so that when we come out of those meetings and head into the Combine, we will have a good idea of who we can keep, who we want to keep, and who we need to replace."
STEELERS' POTENTIAL UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
(Players listed alphabetically)
FS Will Allen
DE Clifton Geathers
OLB James Harrison
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey
CB Brice McCain
OLB Arthur Moats
TE Michael Palmer
TE Matt Spaeth
RB Ben Tate
CB Ike Taylor
OLB Jason Worilds