By The Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — For the first time since he was taken in the third round in the 2009 draft, Mike Wallace, a former Ole Miss standout, will miss a regular-season game for the Steelers.
It might well be the first of many games Pittsburgh plays without the speedster receiver going forward.
An injury in his left hip and hamstring area will prevent Wallace from playing in the Steelers’ season finale Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. He will be an unrestricted free agent, leaving his status with the team for beyond this season in question.
Wallace isn’t the only veteran who might have attended his final practice as a Steelers player Friday. On the heels of a non-winning season and with salary-cap issues upcoming, Pittsburgh (7-8) has some decisions to make on several longtime stalwarts who have been tenured contributors to championship teams.
Wallace, Casey Hampton, Rashard Mendenhall, Max Starks, James Harrison, Larry Foote and Charlie Batch have a combined 59 years of service for the Steelers, 12 starts in Super Bowls for the team and 11 championship rings.
There is reason to believe the game against Cleveland (5-10) will be the final one for many in that group as part of the organization.
“I don’t know who’s going to be out the door or who’s going to be re-signed, but it’s always a business first,” Foote said. “From a selfish standpoint on defense, we were No. 1 in the league — so bring us all back, keep us all. But I never know what’s their plans and (general manager) Kevin Colbert can run a team better than I can.”
Starks, who will start his 96th game at tackle for the Steelers on Sunday, and Hampton, the team’s nose tackle for the past 12 seasons, both hinted this week they could envision playing elsewhere.
The Steelers’ most recent two second-round draft picks — and rookies of the year — are tackles. That doesn’t bode well for Starks, who rebounded from injury each of the past two years to become a reliable starter for the Steelers by the time the season ended.
“I think the writing’s on the wall, so to speak,” Starks said. “I had a great run — nine years here. I’ve gotten to be a part of three Super Bowl teams and got a chance to grasp two of those Lombardis, so it’s an excellent career. If I have to move on, this will always be home for me.”
Hines Ward wept at his retirement press conference in March when he said he couldn’t envision himself in another uniform. The gregarious Hampton chuckled this week at that notion — maintaining that he’d while he’d like to stay a Steeler, he’d play elsewhere if he had to.
A 35-year-old pending free agent, there’s no guarantee the team will make a strong effort to keep Hampton.
Like Hampton and Starks, Foote said on Friday that he doesn’t want to be a backup. But unlike Starks and Hampton, Foote can attest to the grass not always being greener.
Foote asked out of Pittsburgh following the 2009 Super Bowl victory because he knew Lawrence Timmons was primed to take his starting right inside linebacker’s job. Foote signed with his hometown Detroit Lions, who were coming off an 0-16 season.
A year later, the Lions cut him — and Foote was given a three-year deal from the Steelers. He gradually re-earned a starting job back for this season.
Foote is coming off a solid season in which he led the team in tackles. Also, the player presumably drafted this past April to replace him, Sean Spence, missed the season due to a knee injury.
“Hopefully I’m back, but you’ve got to approach it that way,” Foote said. “Especially being long in the tooth as you say, all the older guys. That’s just the nature of the game.”
At 34, Harrison is an even older member of the Steelers’ linebackers corps. Harrison had back and knee injuries that slowed him early this season, and he has only five sacks.
A former NFL defensive player of the year, Harrison has a projected salary-cap hit of more than $10 million next season. It’s unlikely the Steelers would keep him at that number.
“Right now, I’m looking forward to finishing out, playing this game against the Browns and after that’s done I’ll get things together as far as looking forward to next year,” Harrison said.
Mendenhall was similarly evasive when asked about his future on Friday. The former first-round pick has only 163 yards rushing in five games this season because of injury, deactivation and suspension. A pending unrestricted free agent, he is seemingly destined to be on his way out.
At 38, Batch is the NFL’s oldest non-kicker, and the Steelers could elect to add some youth to the quarterback position.
It won’t be age that keeps the Steelers from bringing Wallace back. Failure to come to an agreement on a new contract might, though.
Wallace held out through the entirety of Steelers’ training camp in Latrobe, Pa., this summer before signing a one-year tender as a restricted free agent. He finished the year with fewer catches and receiving yards than he had in each of the previous two seasons and with a 13.1 yards-per-reception that is well below his career average.
“This year obviously didn’t go exactly how I wanted it to go, but I’m happy with the start to my career and I feel like I’m on the right path to do some great things,” Wallace said.
But will they take place in black-and-gold? Wallace paused when asked if he’d consider re-signing with Pittsburgh.
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” he said. “But I’ve got big plans. No matter what the situation is I’ve definitely got big plans for myself and my family.”
Like several other Steelers after a rare non-winning season, those plans just might not include Pittsburgh.
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