There still are six days to go before it starts, but the Steelers' plan for free agency is beginning to come into focus.
They see Jason Worilds as an up-and-coming starter on their defense, and they took the necessary steps to secure his services for the 2014 season. That security came in the form of the transition player designation, and the bookkeeping on that deal is virtually complete.
The Steelers applied the tag on Monday, March 3, and by the close of business on March 4, Worilds had notified the team that he was accepting the designation, which means he traded hitting the open market for a guaranteed $9.754 million for the upcoming season. And if a long-term deal is reached, he would benefit by getting more guaranteed money while the Steelers would be helped by a lower cap number for him in 2014.
Today, new three-year contracts for both Heath Miller and Troy Polamalu were announced that will bind those players to the team through the 2016 season. With regards to Polamalu, this move serves to confirm what Steelers President Art Rooney II told season ticket holders during a conference call on Jan. 15.
"We would very much love to have Troy retire as a Steeler and expect that he will," said Rooney in response to a fan's question. "As you probably know, he has a contract for next season, so how we structure or restructure is something that we'll look at in the next few months. As we try to piece together for next year and our salary cap, there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle, but I certainly expect Troy will be one of the pieces of that puzzle."
And so he is. Polamalu was the team's No. 1 draft choice in 2003, this will be his 12th NFL season, and he will play it as a 33-year-old. His 32 career interceptions ties him for seventh on the all-time franchise list with Darren Perry and Jack Ham, and he was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010. Along with those interceptions, Polamalu also has 12 career sacks, 12 forced fumbles, and six fumble recoveries, which establishes him as the Steelers' primary big-play threat in the secondary throughout his 10 seasons as a starter.
The concern with Polamalu always has been his ability to stay healthy, and the Steelers apparently are satisfied that his 2013 offseason regimen corrected the calf issue that caused him to miss nine games in 2012.
"The great thing about (the 2013 season) as far as Troy was concerned was that he played all 16 games," said Rooney. "That's very helpful for us when we have a player like Troy who's able to stay healthy and play start to finish. He obviously has been one of the great Steelers of all time, and we would love to have him retire here and expect that he will."
It's easy to see why Rooney has such interest in Polamalu not ever playing for another NFL team, and this contract should assure that doesn't happen. One of the team's most popular players in this era, Polamalu reportedly was going to count $10.8 million on the team's salary cap, and this deal certainly will reduce that number and provide the team with some flexibility.
The reasoning behind Miller's extension is similar to Polamalu's, and he's 18 months younger.
Heath Miller, who came to the Steelers as a No. 1 pick in 2005, is simply the best tight end in franchise history, and he plays the position like few others currently in the NFL. Miller has started 12 postseason games for the Steelers, in which their record was 9-3, and he caught 40 passes for 497 yards and four touchdowns in those games.
Miller never would put forth the contention that he's actually a wide receiver as has New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, because he always has been more than just a catcher of passes. Graham, Jason Witten, and Rob Gronkowski all may be more heralded tight ends, but none of them are asked to block defensive ends on a regular basis, which Miller does consistently. And with the way Miller was able to come back quickly from a torn ACL on Dec. 23, 2012 to start 14 games in 2013 and contribute to the level he did had to be a comfort to the Steelers as they pondered the merits of signing him for three more years.
Miller's cap number was to be $9.5 million in 2014, and this new three-year contract reportedly will reduce that number by some $3 million and help the Steelers as they continue to push forward toward the $133 million limit by 4 p.m. on March 11.
An additional move, albeit one yet to be confirmed by the Steelers and not on the same level as new contracts for two of the best players at their positions in franchise history, is the re-signing of veteran safety Will Allen. The move was tweeted by Allen's agent, Blake Baratz.
After being waived by the Cowboys last Oct. 8, Allen signed with the Steelers and contributed 33 tackles and an interception in 11 games here. Keeping Allen gives the Steelers another veteran presence at safety and will allow the team to go into free agency with two veterans (Polamalu and Allen) and a second-year player in Shamarko Thomas who will be expected to contribute significantly on defense in 2014.
Already this week the Steelers retained Jason Worilds for the 2014 season and locked up Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller, while also retaining the services of a reliable veteran safety in Will Allen. Their work is far from complete, but the Steelers have used the past 72 hours to show their hand by identifying some key individuals they want to keep as they put together a roster for the 2014 NFL season.