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Steelers trying to keep Hope off the Free-agent market


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Steelers trying to keep Hope off free-agent market

By Len Pasquarelli

ESPN.com

 

Although there has been no formal contract proposal yet, the Pittsburgh Steelers have made verbal overtures aimed at retaining Chris Hope and will try to keep their starting free safety off the unrestricted market.

 

"They've told us that Chris is one of their top targets [to re-sign]," agent Braylon Bennett told ESPN.com on Monday, "and we're taking them at their word. The thing is, without an extension [to the collective bargaining agreement], doing business will be hard. So we'll see what happens. No matter what, our feeling is that Chris will be the top free-agent safety."

 

Bennett and Hope met Monday to discuss the player's potential options.

 

A four-year veteran and a starter each of the last two seasons, Hope is one of three defenders who started for the Steelers in Super Bowl XL and is eligible for unrestricted free agency. He is likely the player among those three, it seems, that Pittsburgh will try the hardest to retain.

 

Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, 35, is a 12-year veteran and there is a sense the younger Brett Keisel, who is also eligible for free agency and a priority for the Steelers, might be ready to supplant him in the starting lineup. Versatile cornerback Deshea Townsend is arguably the team's best coverage defender and Pittsburgh would also like to have him back, but the progress made by rookie Bryant McFadden in 2005 could propel him into the lineup as well.

 

Team officials reiterated at the Super Bowl that retaining Hope is a priority.

 

There appears to be no viable replacement on the roster for Hope, who is often overshadowed by Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu but who is an integral part of the Steelers' defense. The assessment of Bennett, that his client will be an ardently sought player if he goes onto the market on March 3, is probably an apt one, based on conversations with league personnel directors.

 

A third-round choice in the 2002 draft, Hope is a bright player (a two-time Academic All-American at Florida State), possesses a solid physical skills set and is an emerging performer at a position that is regaining prominence around the league.

 

Hope, just 25, has averaged 97 tackles in his two seasons as a starter and has four interceptions and 20 passes defensed for 2004-05. His three interceptions led the Steelers in 2005 and his 11 pass deflections were third most on the team. His range is a primary reason that Pittsburgh can afford to use Polamalu in so many different ways and is a key to the cover-3 schemes the Steelers deploy so often in third-and-long situations.

 

There is a chance that Bennett will meet this week with Steelers officials at the predraft scouting combine in Indianapolis.

 

"It's something we have discussed, and we're waiting to hear how it might fit into their schedule, given everything they've got to do there," Bennett said. "But if they can find the time, we're more than willing to make sure we're available. Chris has a great deal of admiration for ownership, the coaches, his teammates and the fans, and he'd love to keep playing in Pittsburgh, if possible. But he understands the business end of the game, too, and he'll do what's right for him."

 

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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Hope has said he wants top dollar. Chances are if that's too rich for Pittsburgh it will be too rich for us. The Steelers are pretty similar to us in how they spend money and pursue free agents. I'd put the chances of Hope wearing Giants Blue in '06 as slim.

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