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The Polamalu Situation

The Steelers have spent quite a bit of cash this summer. Ike Taylor was re-signed, Lawrence Timmons and Llamar Woodley were both made very rich men, and a handful of other smaller contracts were handed out to guys like Chris Hoke, Greg Warren, and Daniel Sepulveda. One payer who has yet to get his cash is Troy Polamalu.

Polamalu is in the final year of a four-year, $30.19mm contract, and the iconic veteran has yet to be offered an extension. When asked how he feels about being the odd man out this summer, he is typical Troy, “All comments about the contract stay between the Steelers and my agent. Sorry.”

By all accounts the Steelers hope to keep Polamalu in a Steeler uniform for the rest of his career. He was the defensive player of the year last season and is generally regarded as one of the top two safeties in the game (Ed Reed being the other).

Much of what Dick LeBeau likes to do in his 3-4 defensive setup is made possible by Polamalu’s extreme quickness, speed, and versatility. In addition to being able to close space better than most anyone in the league, he is tremendous at playing the run and is an effective blitzer. LeBeau uses Troy in all these scenarios, moving him all over the field to make opposing offensive coordinator’s heads explode.

So why is it taking the Steelers so long to lock him up?

As much as it may seem like the Steelers are making a huge mistake, they simply cannot afford to do anything with Polamalu’s contract this summer. It is likely Polamalu will be franchised at the end of this season, meaning he will earn right around the $9mm cap hit he is on the books for this year. This is significantly less than they would have had to pay Timmons or Woodley had either of them been franchised. This buys the Steelers another year to make a decision on Polamalu, which is great because 1) the salary cap should increase significantly as ESPN’s TV deal kicks in bringing in another billion or so of revenue to the league, 2) players like Aaron Smith ($6.1mm cap hit), James Farrior ($3.1mm) and possibly even Hines Ward ($3.6mm) may very well be gone, freeing up a ton more cash and 3) they will have a better understanding of how healthy he is.

Since 2004, when Polamalu became an everyday starter, the Steelers are 75-29 with him in the lineup and 12-9 without him. Obviously the organization wants him to remain a Steeler. If this were baseball, Troy would have had a deal done weeks ago. But in the salary capped NFL, the Steelers simply cannot afford to do anything at this point. Even if they wanted to tie up most of the contract money in an up-front bonus, the team doesn’t have the liquid on hand to do it; The Rooneys aren’t struggling to pay the bills, but they don’t have Robert Kraft money.

Steeler Nation seems frustrated with the organization and upset at the prospect of considering Troy Polamalu in another team’s uniform. At this point, though, it is not financially feasible, nor is it a wise decision to offer big money to a player whose reckless style of play and aging body is beginning to show signs of wear and tear (Troy has played in only 19 of the last 32 regular-season games).

There is no way I can envision a scenario where Colbert lets a healthy Polamalu hit the free agent market without an offer in place, but that’s not going to happen in 2011.

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