So I had a spirited debate with Pittsburgh broadcasting legend Stan Savran on Thursday regarding the question of whether the Steelers prefer to avoid seeing quarterback Dennis Dixon become regarded as a budding star during starter Ben Roethlisberger’s six-game (likely to be reduced to four) suspension.
I believe, regardless of whether anyone agrees with me, that the Steelers hope to avoid a locker-room controversy when Roethlisberger comes back regarding whether the team should continue to ride with Dixon, who seems to have very special skills. (At a minimum, he seems to be much better equipped to survive behind a less-than-stellar offensive line than Byron Leftwich.) I also believe that the Steelers hope to defer having to choose between keeping or trading Dixon until they’re certain that Roethlisberger can get through a full offseason without getting himself in trouble.
But there’s another point that previously failed to consider. The Steelers remains one of the few teams to require low-round draft picks to sign three-year contracts. As a result, 2010 represents the final year of Dixon’s rookie deal.
Though the details remain to be determined in the next labor deal, it’s unlikely that the threshold for restricted free agency will be increased from three years to four — especially since few teams use rookie deals with a duration of fewer than four years.
Thus, if Dixon plays and plays well during the 2010 season, the Steelers will have to possibly over-tender Dixon in order to keep him around for at least another year. Even though there seems to be a little (or a lot) of winking and nodding when it comes to restricted free agents, a team that needs a quarterback could opt to break ranks, especially if the Steelers apply the fifth-rounder tender to Dixon.
In the end, the Steelers could be forced to use the highest tender on Dixon, which would pay him more than $3 million to back up Big Ben in 2011, if the word gets out this year that Dixon is the real deal.
So maybe, in the end, that’s one of the big reasons for the decision to hand the short-term job to Leftwich without actual competition — if, of course, the Steelers eventually believe that their record under the veteran will be comparable to what the up-and-comer can do.