The Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday ended more than a month of speculation and uncertainty surrounding the future of punter Chris Gardocki, releasing the 16-year veteran and making him an unrestricted free agent able to sign with another team.
Pittsburgh invested a fourth-round pick in this year's draft on punter Daniel Sepulveda of Baylor, arguably the highest-rated punter in the 2007 rookie pool, and that all but marked the end of Gardocki's three-year tenure with the team.
The likely switch to Sepulveda, who will battle Mike Barr in training camp for the starting job, will make Pittsburgh younger and cheaper at the position. Gardocki, 37, had two years left on his contract, at base salaries of $1.088 million in 2007 and $1.3 million for 2008.
Even before the selection of Sepulveda, who averaged 46.5 yards for Baylor in 2006 after recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in a pickup basketball game, there was speculation about whether Gardocki would return to the Steelers for the 2007 season.
Barr, a free agent who had been in camp with the Steelers each of the past three summers, mounted a serious challenge to Gardocki last year, before Pittsburgh coaches decided to retain the older veteran. The Steelers hold Barr in high regard, but with the club having used a fourth-round pick on Sepulveda, the rookie will certainly be the favorite to win the job.
Over the past couple seasons, the feeling in Pittsburgh was that Gardocki was beginning to show signs of decline and that his lofty salary would eventually mandate a switch. When the Steelers signed Gardocki away from division rival Cleveland in 2003 as an unrestricted free agent, his acquisition was viewed as a key one.
Typically, the Steelers don't get into the free-agent market, particularly for a specialist. But Gardocki did justify the financial investment in him, in part, by helping the Steelers claim the Super Bowl XL title in 2005.
In 16 seasons, Gardocki never had a punt blocked. He punted 1,177 times in 244 game, and has career averages of 42.8 yards gross and 35.7 yards net. The former Clemson standout has 322 kicks inside the 20-yard line and only 103 touchbacks.
Gardocki originally entered the league as a third-round pick of the Chicago Bears in the 1991 draft. In addition to the Bears (1991-94) and Steelers (2003-06), Gardocki played with Indianapolis (1995-98) and Cleveland (1999-2003). Arguably his best season was with the Colts in 1996, when he posted a gross average of 45.7 yards and a gross average of 39.0 yards, with just two touchbacks that year.
He was named to his only Pro Bowl appearance in 1997.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.