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An interception against the Browns was a rare highlight in Troy Polamalu's 2012 season.
Harrison’s, Polamalu's and Miller’s contracts expire after 2014, making them nearly impossible to restructure. Instead, the first two are likely to be the subjects of some difficult conversations within the organization.
The other downside to an extended run of success is that eventually, there comes a point at which the stars of yesterday are taking up valuable playing time and cap space that should go to the team’s future. Football is a hard and heartless business. Smart teams like the Steelers know when it’s time to move on.
Sadly for Pittsburgh fans, that time may have come for two of its most popular players. A combination of big 2013 cap hits, advanced ages, injuries and slipping skills make them potential candidates to be released.
Harrison will be 35 at the start of next season and has struggled to stay healthy for the past two seasons. He averaged a sack every 2.2 games and a little more than five tackles per game this year, his worst and second-worst rates, respectively, since he became a starter in 2007.
Releasing him would save the Steelers approximately $5.1 million next year and give them some of the financial flexibility necessary to rebuild other parts of their aging defense.
Cutting Harrison would not be a particularly shocking move for a team that has a history of letting aging linebackers go. Harrison became a starter immediately after Pittsburgh cut his predecessor, Joey Porter, a high-profile Pro Bowl player, to free up cap space in 2007.
Releasing Polamalu, arguably the team’s most popular star, has less of a precedent and will probably never happen. But it would be a good, if painful, way to free up an additional $4.6 million in cap space.
The team’s star safety missed the majority of this season with injuries. When he was on the field, Polamalu was inconsistent. He performed well against the Bengals, sacking quarterback Andy Dalton on one of his signature blitzes timed to the snap. Against the Cowboys the week before, however, Polamalu struggled, frequently getting caught out of position and badly missing several tackles.
The problem with the safety’s freelancing style of play is that it requires the athleticism of a younger man. As he ages, Polamalu is losing the ability to recover quickly when he guesses wrong. That trend isn’t going to reverse itself in 2013. He is not going to magically turn back the clock and become a dominant defensive player again.
Given that Polamalu’s contract will expire after 2014, the Steelers can either accept his limitations and cap burden for the next two seasons out of respect, encourage him to retire or let him go.
It’s pretty unlikely that the Steelers won’t go with the first option, but the second and third are probably better for the team's long-term health.
Harrison and Polamalu aren’t the only popular players the Steelers should look at cutting. Another option would be defensive end Brett Keisel, who will be in the final year of his contract. If Keisel is unwilling to accept a pay cut that would save the team about $2 million next year, Pittsburgh could release him and save nearly $3 million.
A less controversial move would be releasing kicker Shaun Suisham, which would add about $1 million in cap space. Though Suisham has had an excellent season and the projected savings are not huge, the performance of kickers tends to vary widely from year to year, making them pretty fungible commodities.
Veterans who should be spared include cornerback Ike Taylor, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and offensive lineman Willie Colon.
At first glance, Taylor seems like a juicy target given his age and $6 million base salary in 2013. However, he has been the cornerstone of an excellent defensive backfield that has yielded the fewest passing yards in the NFL despite missing Polamalu for nine games and playing behind a front seven that only ranks 11th in the NFL in adjusted sack rate, a Football Outsiders stat that measures sacks and intentional grounding penalties per pass attempt, adjusted for down and distance.
Cotchery and Colon are also potential cap casualties, but cutting them would only save about $2.2 million and cost the Steelers two players who offer pretty good value. With a cap hit of $1.5 million, Cotchery doesn’t cost much more than a replacement-level receiver would and the receiver made some crucial catches this year as the team’s third or fourth wideout.
Colon has not had a great year, but his ability to play guard and tackle, coupled with the Steelers’ lack of depth on the offensive line, gives the team a reason to hang onto him.