Colts, Steelers, Saints in Tough Positions This Offseason, Could Lead to Transition in NFL’s Power Ranks

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Colts, Steelers, Saints in Tough Positions This Offseason, Could Lead to Transition in NFL's Power RanksThere could be a transition of power in 2012 if a few NFL teams don’t handle this offseason with care.

The Colts, Steelers and Saints are all in precarious positions, and they’ll have to make some tough decisions this offseason to keep their perches among the league’s upper-echelon teams.

Of course, the Colts are in a more unique position because their downward spiral began last summer when quarterback Peyton Manning revealed the extent of his neck injury. But if the Colts and Manning can resolve their current dispute and continue their marriage, they’ll continue to be considered a playoff contender as long as Manning’s neck permits him to stay on the field.

That’s the root of the Colts’ problems, but they don’t end there. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne, defensive end Robert Mathis, center Jeff Saturday and wide receiver Pierre Garcon are all free agents, while defensive end Dwight Freeney ($14 million) and tight end Dallas Clark ($4.53 million) are owed big salaries in 2012, which could lead to their releases.

It looks more and more like the Colts could part ways with Manning, but they might blow up the whole operation, too. There will be plenty of optimism as they build the franchise around quarterback Andrew Luck, but if the Colts can’t keep their core intact — and the aforementioned players are tied to Manning, which crushes their incentive to stick around for a rebuilding campaign — they’ll essentially hand the keys to the AFC South to the up-and-coming Texans.

The Steelers are in another predicament. A little more than a year ago, they were vying for their third Super Bowl victory in a span of six seasons. Now, they’re in rough shape and will need to unload talent and rework some contracts. 

They’re going to be $22.5 million over the salary cap heading into the new league year (which begins March 13), according to NFL.com, so they’ll have to trim some fat in the next few weeks. It’s already been reported wide receiver Hines Ward will be released to save $4 million, but the cuts can’t end there.

The Steelers could get creative to move some money around, but it won’t be possible in every case — not with that size of a financial burden. That means a few big-name players like safety Ryan Clark ($3 million salary in 2012), tackle Willie Colon ($4.5 million), linebacker James Farrior ($2.825 million), linebacker Larry Foote ($3 million), defensive tackle Casey Hampton ($4.89 million), defensive end Brett Keisel ($2.825 million), offensive lineman Chris Kemoeatu ($3.577 million), tight end Heath Miller ($4.274 million) and defensive end Aaron Smith ($2.1 million) could be candidates to get released. The Steelers should also look to rework quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s $11.6 million base salary in 2012.

This isn’t ideal timing for the Steelers, who need to get younger and add more depth, particularly along the offensive line, while they try to keep pace with the Ravens. The Bengals have also improved to make the AFC North a tougher division, and the Steelers have miniscule room for error as they work through this financial dilemma.

The Saints, who are just two years removed from their Super Bowl victory, are still working on quarterback Drew Brees‘ contract. While it would take an absolute disaster for those negotiations to fall apart, the compensation Brees deserves will hinder the Saints’ ability to retain some other key free agents.

The Saints are up against the cap, and their other free agents include wide receiver Marques Colston, guard Carl Nicks, cornerback Tracy Porter and wide receiver Robert Meachem. If Brees’ deal approaches the $15-20 million range, the Saints will struggle to retain their offensive depth, as well as build upon a defense that needs improvement.

With Brees in tow, the Saints will have enough to compete for the NFC South title, but losses at other positions would remove them from the top tier in the conference, which is shifting in the favor of the Giants, Packers and 49ers.

These things happen across the NFL every offseason, and while the respective levels of severity differ between the Colts, Steelers and Saints, the three teams will have to get creative before seriously competing for another Super Bowl. Considering they’ve all won the Super Bowl in the last six seasons — and they’ve all played in one of the last three Super Bowls — this is just the latest example of how quickly things can change in the NFL’s modern era.

Have a question for Jeff Howe? Send it to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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