Pittsburgh Steelers: Addressing the Difficult Salary Cap Strategy

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2012

It has become clear that the Pittsburgh Steelers are in some financial trouble. Widespread reports have all but confirmed that the Steelers are at least $20 million over the projected salary cap for 2012.

The Steelers have never been a team that traditionally is comfortable under the cap; however, it has been a very long time since they have come close to being in this kind of peril.

With a veteran roster, not to mention a roster full of fan favorites and Super Bowl winners, it will be the job of Omar Khan, the man who takes care of the Steelers' cap structure, to separate sentimentality from business and cut away the dead weight that is preventing the team from functioning in the offseason.

While it is impossible to predict what Khan will do or how he will manage the situation, here is the strategy which I feel would best fix the Steelers' issues.

First things first, the ultimate goals of this task are as follows:

  • Not only get within the cap, but create roughly $10 million of space to sign draft choices and add free agents in the offseason. The Steelers do not need big name free agents, but added role players will need to be signed.
  • Do not sacrifice long-term talent for a short-term fix.
  • Return not only a competitive team, but a Super Bowl worthy team.


How the Salary Cap Works

A player has two methods of payment. One is the salary, which is not guaranteed. The salary is spread out over the 16 weeks of the regular season, and the only way a player gets it is by remaining with the team for that time.

The other is what is referred to as a bonus. A player's hit against the cap is determined by the salary added to the bonus for that given year. While the salary is not guaranteed, the bonus is given to a player no matter what.

Therefore, if you attempt to release or trade a player, you must pay all of the remaining guaranteed money, not just the bonus for that given year. All of that money counts towards against the cap, not just the bonus for that year; however, you do not have to pay the salary, and its number does not count against the cap.


Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley's New Deals

Omar Khan is not an idiot; in fact, he is quite the opposite. Khan has somewhat prepared himself for this season with the Woodley and Timmons deals. As explained here on Steelersdepot.com, both contracts have been designed in such a way that parts of their deals can be guaranteed and spread out over the length of their contracts.

Exercising this option would alleviate roughly $8.25 million in cap space. Working off of Omar Kelly's cap numbers, that brings our cap number to $141 million without losing any players.

Good start!

Savings so far: $9 million

Target: $35 million


Release James Harrison and James Farrior

Firstly, a comment on these two collectively. Timmons and Woodley are being paid like elite players. At this point in their respective careers, they are veterans who should be expected to be leaders. Losing Harrison and Farrior's leadership shouldn't come into the equation.

The writing was on the wall for Harrison last year, as he restructured his deal to help the Steelers get under the cap. If the team keeps him this year, he is scheduled to count as just over $9 million against the cap. Harrison's salary is $5.5 million with a $3.6 million bonus.

He has very little of his guaranteed $20 million left on his contract after receiving most of it during the first three seasons of the deal.

His level of play last season was nowhere near worth $9 million, while the difference between he and Jason Worilds isn't reflected in the difference in the money which they are paid. Releasing Harrison would save the team $5.5 million against the cap with a talented starter already on the roster ready to fill the role.

Farrior arguably has overstayed his welcome with the Steelers. The once-elite linebacker hasn't been anywhere near his prime in a long time. Farrior simply doesn't have the legs to play in the NFL anymore. While he can still stuff the run, his inability in coverage forced Dick LeBeau to blitz him on obvious passing downs last year.

Defenses saw him coming and easily picked him. When he was asked to play coverage, offenses picked on him with great success. Releasing Farrior would save the team $2.8 million against the salary cap.

Savings so far: $17.3 million

Target: $35 million


Release Bryant McFadden and Do Not Re-Sign William Gay

Releasing Bryant McFadden, who was reduced to nothing more than a special teams player and quality depth option last year, is a simple and obvious decision for the Steelers. With Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown impressing as rookies both on defense and special teams, there is no need to be paying McFadden over $2 million.

Not re-signing Gay won't exactly take money away from the Steelers' cap figure, but moving Keenan Lewis into his starting spot permanently will essentially save them money. Gay was picked up later in the offseason last year on a cheap deal. He had a decent year for the Steelers this year and likely won't be available in a similar situation this year.

Savings so far: $19.8 million

Target: $35 million


Release Jonathan Scott and Arnaz Battle

Jonathan Scott, somehow, is scheduled to make $2.7 million this season. Once again, however, Khan has structured this deal well. Releasing Scott will save the team $2.2 million and only create $500,000 of dead money.

The emergence of the Steelers rookies on special teams last season made Battle less valuable to the Steelers. His release saves the team just over $1 million.

Savings so far: $23 million

Target: $35 million


Restructure Hines Ward's Contract

Hines Ward has made it clear that he wants to return to play with the Steelers again this year despite his inactivity late in the season last year. Ward is not actually guaranteed to make a huge amount of money for the Steelers next year, with only $600,000 in bonuses.

Much like they have done with Ike Taylor on multiple occasions, restructuring the whole of Ward's deal so that it becomes a signing bonus is a worthwhile investment at this point in his career. Ward is motivated by one last Super Bowl, not money.

Savings so far: $27.6 million

Target: $35 million


Release Will Allen and Chris Kemoeatu

Willi Allen's play on special teams is replaceable with DaMon Cromartie-Smith, who also may have more potential than the veteran. The emergence of Ryan Mundy, who is a restricted free agent, has made Allen and his $1.3 million salary expendable.

Chris Kemoeatu has two years left on a $20 million deal he signed. With only $6 million in guaranteed money, there is little reason for the Steelers not to cut the former starting guard. Cutting Kemoeatu will save $3.5 million against the cap this season.

Savings so far: $32.4 million

Target: $35 million


Release Shaun Suisham After June 1

As eloquently explained here by Steelers depot, if the Steelers release Shaun Suisham after the first of June, they can save $1.35 million against the cap for the 2012 season. Suisham is being overpaid considering his limitations as a kicker as well as his lack of consistency.

Savings so far: $33.9 million

Target: $35 million


Aaron Smith's Retirement

Presuming Aaron Smith retires, something which he is mulling until there is official word, the Steelers wouldn't have to make any more moves to reach the goal of $35 million. Smith accounts for nearly $3 million against the cap this season. Without him, the team would have around $12 million to replace James Farrior, the only gaping hole created by the cuts, as well as try to improve the roster elsewhere.

If Smith doesn't retire, he is almost certain to restructure his deal to stay with the team, expect the final savings to come there.

Savings so far: $35 million-plus

Target: $35 million


Omar Khan is a widely respected member of the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. It is no wonder that other teams have offered him opportunities over the years. The clauses in both LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons' contracts made the Steelers' sticky situation less problematic.

Working this strategy only costs the team two starters. However, James Farrior hasn't been playing starting-caliber football for the past few years, while James Harrison's replacement is waiting in the wings to become a full-time starter.

Things aren't so bleak for the Steelers.

*While writing this article, the Steelers announced that Bryant McFadden and Arnaz Battle had been released.

Tweeting @Cianaf


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