If there's any team in the AFC North that has the 2013 salary cap weighing heavily on their minds, it's the Pittsburgh Steelers. At one point this year, they were nearly $30 million over the cap and had to release a number of expensive, declining veterans and restructure others' contracts in order to balance the books by the league-imposed deadline.
At this point, it looks like another league year will begin with the Steelers again over the cap. So how are they going to handle this while still paying free agents they're looking to retain? Let's take a quick look.
2012 Salary Cap: $120.6 million
Projected 2013 Salary Cap: $121.1 million
Unsurprisingly, the Steelers are projected to yet again be over the salary cap in 2012, with about $16 million in their budget needing to be shaved off so they can get under it. Considering the veritable housecleaning that the team did with older veterans this offseason, it's quite possible more cuts are coming.
At the same time, there are crucial free agents the Steelers would like to get locked down to new deals, most importantly being current holdout wide receiver Mike Wallace. A long-term deal could come for Wallace tomorrow, in two months or never, but it's money the Steelers need to account for until that point.
So, who could stay, who could go and who could see a restructuring? Because the Steelers are certainly not going to get out of this situation without making moves.
Where to Spend the Cash?
Well, first and foremost, there's no cash to spend, so the Steelers need to take a look at their impending free agents and figure out where their priorities lie.
The Steelers have an impressive list of high-profile 2013 unrestricted free agents: The aforementioned Wallace, cornerbacks Will Allen and Keenan Lewis, both backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer, offensive linemen Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky, linebacker Larry Foote, nose tackle Casey Hampton, tight end/fullback David Johnson and safety Ryan Mundy.
Restricted free agents include nose tackle Steve McClendon, running back Isaac Redman and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Can the Steelers find new, younger, cheaper back-up quarterbacks? If so, Batch and Leftwich are likely not getting new contracts. How Mendenhall looks when he returns from his ACL injury—and how good of a job Redman does as his replacement—will determine his future. Hampton's likely gone, but they'll have to work something out with McClendon as a result.
The Steelers may be forced to part ways with either Foster or Legursky, but their offensive line depth may not allow them to let both walk. Lewis likely will get some kind of a deal, with Allen a potential cap casualty.
There's also the matter of some of their aging veterans, like cornerback Ike Taylor, safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison. Releasing even one of these players would free up significant money to pay some of these younger free agents, but it also would leave a major leadership gap at one of the Steelers' most important defensive positions.
So, yet again, it looks like tough choices are ahead for the Steelers front office when the 2013 league year begins. Don't be surprised if there's another round of high-profile players released or allowed to leave as free agents, because finances dictate action. Luckily for Pittsburgh, there will be some breathing room in 2014 when the salary cap increases with the inclusion of television cash.