We all know the Pittsburgh Steelers' tight cap situation. We also know that they rarely make a big splash in free agency, choosing instead to re-sign their own players – or at least the ones they can afford. But they do dip into the free-agency pool on occasion to fill holes in their roster. The signings might not be sexy or flashy, but they are often necessary.
With that in mind, here's a look at some defensive players the Steelers should look at once the free agency period opens March 12:
Isaac Sopoaga – At 31, the nine-year veteran has spent his entire career with the 49ers. But with San Francisco intent on handing the starting nose tackle job to Ricky Jean-Francois, the 6-2, 330-pound Sopoaga could be expendable. Yes, he's on the downside of his career, but so is Casey Hampton. If the Steelers can't bring Hampton back for another year as they bring Steve McLendon and youngsters Hebron Fangupo and Alameda Ta'amu along, Sopoaga has the experience to step right in at a possible bargain price.
Aubrayo Franklin – Another plugger for the middle, Franklin could also help ease the loss of Hampton if that happens. The 6-2, 315-pounder is 32, but still has some gas left in the tank.
Mike Devito – A classic 3-4 end type, the 6-3, 305-pound, 28-year-old DeVito isn't a big sack guy, but he does what 3-4 ends are supposed to do, occupy space. The Jets brought in Quinton Coples to replace him and he took a paycut to stay in New York. It might be time to move on. He won't be a big budget signing for somebody, but he's a quality role player.
Glenn Dorsey – Sure Dorsey was overdrafted by the Chiefs as the fifth overall pick in 2008 – Todd Haley's first year as head coach. But the 6-1, 297-pounder has some value as a free agent. He played defensive end for the Chiefs as a two-gap lineman, but could also shift inside to the nose. He's made his money, perhaps he'd like a shot at winning, or at least a chance to prove his knee is sound after missing all but four games in 2012.
Brandon Siler – After missing the 2011 season with an Achilles' tendon tear, Siler was more of a special teams player and backup in Kansas City in 2012. But the former Florida star was a solid player in 2009 and 2010 for San Diego. If the Steelers are unable to bring back Larry Foote, which is their preference, Siler would give them a cheap starting option beside Lawrence Timmons. Even if Foote is brought back, the 6-2, 239-pound Siler, who is still just 27, could replace Brandon Johnson as an experienced reserve and core special teams player.
Larry Grant – The former Ohio State star has some pass rush ability and at 6-1, 251 pounds, the 28-year-old is more of a thumper than Siler. As a backup in San Francisco last season, he didn't see a lot of playing time, but two years ago, he played an impressive three-game stretch as a replacement for Patrick Willis, recording 28 tackles with a sack and 5 pass defenses – including 5 tackles and 4 pass defenses against the Steelers. This could be a diamond in the rough if Foote isn't brought back. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau could tap into his Ohio State roots here.
Brad Jones – This is more of a high-profile signing, albeit one in the James Farrior mode. Jones (6-3, 242) was moved inside by the Packers this season and thrived as a run stuffer and cover linebacker. Green Bay would like to have him back, but might not be able to make it work – especially if it doesn't have a starting job to offer. Coming out of Dom Capers' 3-4 defense, making a transition to what Dick LeBeau asks of his defenders wouldn't be a stretch. Plus, at 26, he and Lawrence Timmons could man the inside in the Pittsburgh defense for years.
William Gay – OK, I know the Steelers already signed Gay, much to the chagrin of some. But I'm including him in this free-agent series because some need the move explained to them. The Steelers are looking for more playmakers in their secondary. They think that Cortez Allen can be that guy. And they don't want to overpay to keep Keenan Lewis when they think Allen is more of what they want. You're certainly not going to give Lewis $6 million to be the nickel. Gay thrived in the slot for the Steelers as a blitzer and cover guy. He gives them three experienced corners to work with, something that doesn't force them to draft at corner unless that's where the value is. The Steelers will also reap the benefit of getting a supplemental pick for Gay while also getting him back.
Craig Dahl – Dahl has made 52 starts in the past five seasons for St. Louis and the Giants, with 16 starts in 2012 for the Rams. But the 6-1, 212-pound, 27-year-old safety is probably better served as a spot starter and backup. He does have four interceptions in the past three seasons and isn't afraid to stick his nose in and tackle – as his 78 tackles last year would imply. With Ryan Mundy and Will Allen free agents, the Steelers could be in the market for a veteran safety who can also play special teams.
Jamarca Sanford – Has started the past two seasons for the Vikings while also playing some special teams. Sanford can play free or strong safety and makes things happen – witness 4 forced fumbles in 2012. Again, if Mundy and Allen leave, Sanford would be a more than capable replacement.
(Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.)