NFL Burress likely to leave Steelers; Bettis may return next season

Pittsburgh has opened contract talks with the veteran running back.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to designate wide receiver Plaxico Burress as their franchise player by Tuesday's deadline, all but assuring he will become a free agent March 2.
Burress is set to leave Pittsburgh, but possibly not the AFC North because the Baltimore Ravens are believed to be interested in signing the 6-foot-5 receiver. Burress had at least 60 catches for three years in a row before being slowed by a hamstring injury last season, when his 35 catches were his fewest since he made 22 as a rookie in 2000.
Ben Roethlisberger lobbied hard for the Steelers to bring back Burress, their only deep receiving threat and one of the quarterback's closest friends. But with the Steelers lacking the cap room to boost Burress' salary to $7,768,000 -- the average of the NFL's top five receivers -- his parting has been considered inevitable since last month.
Burress missed five of the Steelers' last six regular season games with a sore hamstring, then was disappointed at being used mostly as a decoy after that. He made only five catches for 65 yards in two playoff games, including a meaningless TD catch in the final minute of the 41-27 loss to New England in the AFC championship game Jan. 23.
"It's Pittsburgh, which speaks for itself. They're not going to change," Burress said of the Steelers' run-heavy offense. "I'm not going to change. Three or four balls just doesn't suit me very well."
Money matters
The Steelers have not designated a franchise player since linebacker Jason Gildon in 2002, when he signed a multi-year contract before he could play under the franchise tag.
Burress' cap value last season was $1.5 million. He signed a five-year contract worth a minimum of $8.67 million after being the No. 8 pick in the 2000 draft.
While Burress is all but gone, The Bus might not be. The Steelers have opened contract talks with running back Jerome Bettis -- a possible sign the NFL's No. 5 career rusher might not retire.
Bettis, who turned 33 last week, has hinted he might play one more season after gaining at least 100 yards in seven of eight starts last season. But the Steelers need him to renegotiate his contract, as he did last season by agreeing to a $2.7 million pay cut to $1 million in base salary.
Bettis is scheduled to make $4.484 million in 2005, but might be willing to play for $2 million after rushing for 941 yards and 13 touchdowns while splitting time with Duce Staley.
The Steelers were about $500,000 under the salary cap at season's end, but must cut several players by next week to get under the projected cap of $85 million. Numerous players collected performance bonuses during the Steelers' 15-1 season that count against next season's cap -- including Roethlisberger, who earned more than $2 million in extra money after unexpectedly becoming a rookie-season starter.
The Steelers could release Bettis for salary-cap purposes and re-sign him. But that's a scenario both sides prefer to avoid with perhaps the most popular Steelers player since the 1970s.