(Note: Salary-cap figures will be adjusted once calculations on contract clauses from 2008 such as incentives are finalized in February. The league-wide 2009 cap is set at $123 million.)
Biggest need area: Defensive end. The importance of this position in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 system can’t be understated. The ends are vital in stopping the run and tying up offensive linemen so Steelers linebackers can effectively rush the passer. Both current starting DEs are getting long in the tooth. Aaron Smith will be 33 when the 2009 season begins; Brett Keisel will be 31 in September. The top backup isn’t a youngster either, as Travis Kirschke turns 35 in September.
Player to watch: LT Max Starks. Last offseason, the most questionable use of a player-designation free-agent tag was Pittsburgh’s decision to name Starks a transition player. While he started the season on the bench, the move paid dividends when Starks ably replaced the injured Marvel Smith (back) in Week 7. Starks and Smith are both set to become unrestricted free agents and it’s highly unlikely the Steelers will keep both.
Projected cap space: $20 million. With no starters besides Starks/Smith set to become unrestricted free agents, the Steelers can make a push toward keeping two key backups in WR Nate Washington and CB Bryant McFadden. RT Willie Colon and FB Carey Davis are restricted free agents who are candidates for long-term extensions. The Steelers also will probably try to negotiate a new deal for LB James Harrison. The NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year is grossly underpaid, having outperformed the four-year, $5.5 million contract he signed in 2006.
2009 outlook: Excellent. The Steelers now have an NFL-record six Super Bowl titles. A seventh isn’t out of the question next season with all the talent on this roster.
Biggest need area: Cornerback. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (2008) is emerging as a shutdown corner, while Antrel Rolle (2005) is starting at free safety. Still, Arizona allowed an NFL-high 36 touchdown passes in the regular season. CB Rod Hood is a two-year Cardinals starter but he already is being picked on by quarterbacks trying to avoid throwing in Rodgers-Cromartie’s direction. Inside linebacker will shoot to the top of Arizona’s most-wanted list if Karlos Dansby leaves in free agency. The Cardinals also must find another running back to team with Tim Hightower if Edgerrin James is released during the offseason.
Player to watch: QB Kurt Warner. With a franchise tag in hand, there’s no way the Cardinals are going to let Warner leave as an unrestricted free agent. But how contract negotiations are handled could affect whether the 37-year-old Warner wants to continue playing or retire — something he didn’t dismiss as a possibility prior to the Super Bowl. If Warner does return, don’t be surprised if backup Matt Leinart’s agents try to force his way out of Arizona. At age 26, Leinart would be entering his fourth NFL season as a backup rather than the marquee quarterback Arizona expected when selecting him with the 10th overall pick in 2006.
Projected cap space: $41 million. The Cardinals aren’t major players in free agency, preferring to use cap space to re-sign their own players to contract extensions or simply pocket cash for profit. Arizona has three key starters — wide receiver Anquan Boldin, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and strong safety Adrian Wilson — who are angling for new deals. All three have outplayed their current contracts but have little leverage beyond a holdout that would prove costly to both parties. The use of the franchise designation on Warner would allow Dansby, who was tagged in 2008, to hit the market.
2009 outlook: Good. The Cardinals have a solid nucleus of young players led by wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, but this is a franchise with no track record of success. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt must guard against team overconfidence and urge Arizona’s front office to spend some money on at least some of the players with contract issues. Otherwise, the Cardinals may become the 11th consecutive NFC representative to miss the Super Bowl the following season.