by Mike Pelaia
Over the past few seasons we’ve seen several Steeler stalwarts play their final game in the black and gold uniform as the team elected to move on due to age, salary or both. 2013 will follow that same pattern as we will likely see some of the following players end their Steeler careers after this season.
Brett Keisel is the most likely candidate as he’s 34 years old, he’ll be 35 in September and he’s in the final year of his contract.
Keisel has been a rock at right defensive end for this team for several years and was a huge part of the Super Bowl teams. He still has some good football left and will likely put up a solid statistical season once again. However, the team is waiting for young buck Cam Heyward to step up and take Keisels job. They invested a first round pick in Heyward and can’t wait much longer to see what he can do as a full time starter.
The fact that Keisel is a free agent makes the decision pretty simple for the team. While it’s not a 100% chance Keisel won’t be back in 2014, the possibilities are slim.
Ryan Clark may follow Keisel out the door after 2013 as well. He too is a free agent after this season and at 33 years old; he’s no spring chicken either.
Clark has put up very solid seasons since joining the team via free agency in 2006 and has been part of an all pro duo alongside Troy Polamalu. However, with his age being what it is and the fact the team traded up to draft safety Shamarko Thomas in this year’s draft, his odds of returning beyond 2013 don’t look great.
Unlike Keisel, Clark probably could play a few more seasons at a very high level and if the team were to let him walk, he’d probably be able to land elsewhere. That, however, is not what Clark would like to happen; he has stated publicly he’d like to finish his career in Pittsburgh. If Shamarko Thomas doesn’t develop as quickly as the team likes, Clark will have a better shot of coming back in 2014.
The third candidate on this list is Ike Taylor. Over the last 8 seasons he’s been the Steelers unquestioned top corner and has consistently been assigned the opposition’s top receiver.
More often than not, Taylor has delivered when called upon. He’s never been one to gain the interception as he seems to have hands made of rocks, but he can cover just about anyone on the field. He was a huge part of the Steelers Super Bowl runs and has been a very consistent cog on a defense that continues to finish at the top of the league in pass defense.
He’s coming off of a season ending injury and how he performs off of that injury will be pivotal for his potential return beyond this season. He’ll be 34 in 2014 and his contract will be worth 10 million against the salary cap. The team will likely draft at least one corner in the 2014 draft and they may want to clear some cap room as they continue to transition to the younger generation and try to keep some of their up and coming young stars.
Lastly, and probably the most unlikely due strictly to who he is, Troy Polamalu. Yes, it’s almost sacrilegious to even discuss the possibility of the team moving on without Polamalu without him calling his own shots but we saw it happen with Hines Ward and it could happen to Troy too.
Of this group of players, Polamalu has been the most banged up from head to toe. His playing style, while Hall of Fame caliber, has caught up to him and may have finally slowed him down a bit. He’s still a factor on the field, but not on the same level he once was. His final year of his contract is 2014 and in that year his cap hit will also be over 10 million dollars. The team very well could elect to let Polamalu go early to save the cap space. The odds of this are 50/50.
It would be a very hard decision to let one of the best players in team history walk and it’s a decision the team would much rather have Troy make on his own. However, if Troy thinks he can play in 2014 and wants to do so and the Steelers feel otherwise, we could have a repeat of the Hines Ward situation and that would be a shame.
We still have a long way to go before any of these possibilities every have a chance of resonating however as we approach the start of the 2013 training camp it’s worth looking at these players and appreciating all they have done for the black and gold over the years. Some may be back in 2014 and some may go but one thing is guaranteed, this will be the last year that all of these guys will play together and try to get ring number seven.
Editor’s Note: Mike Pelaia hosts the website Steel Nation Association www.steelnationassociation.com – Covering the Steelers and helping Children’s Hospital All Day Everyday. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.