On Thursday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette via Plus Sites) told Pittsburgh Steelers fans to brace themselves for another "March Massacre," one that could result in far more roster cuts than their purge of veterans last spring.
For the second consecutive year, the Steelers will be over the salary cap—to the tune of at least $14.2 million. Bouchette says this may mean that the team will not be able to re-sign any of their impending free agents and also have to release overpriced veterans and reduce or restructure the salaries of others.
Bouchette might be overstating things—the Steelers probably will be able to keep at least a few of their 24 soon-to-be restricted and unrestricted free agents, though at the expense of some longtime players whose contracts aren't expiring.
For example, the Steelers must keep cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is an unrestricted free agent this year. Lewis, who started all 16 games in 2012, allowed only 52.7 percent of the 112 passes thrown his direction to be caught, for 694 yards and just three touchdowns. He also led all Steelers corners with 16 defensed passes.
Lewis got the job after William Gay headed to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency last year, and more turnover at the position is not what they need in 2013, especially considering how well the Steelers pass defense performed in 2012. Nor are any of their alternatives—Cortez Allen, Josh Victorian or Curtis Brown—consistent enough to become a starter if Lewis doesn't get a new deal.
But where will the money for Lewis come from? One option is to release linebacker James Harrison, who has a $6.57 million base salary this year. Restructuring his deal may not be an option, considering that 2014 is his final contract year in Pittsburgh, when he's owed $7.57 million. Pushing some of this year's money to the next will end up paying Harrison far more than he's worth, and there's little chance that if he does stay around that he'll get another contract.
Clearly, yet another restructure will be coming for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is presently owed $11.6 million this year; however, as Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk points out, his restructure from last year adds $2.75 million to this year's cap figure, and the fact that he has just three years left on his deal means that additional restructures will require a contract extension.
Safety Troy Polamalu, who has a $7.5 million base salary in 2013, will need a new contract as well in order to move money around, as he's set to be a free agent after the 2014 season. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley will be easier to restructure, considering he's owed $9 million in base salary this season but has four years left in his contract.
Left guard Willie Colon seems to be a candidate for release, especially considering that Kelvin Beachum may be ready to become a starter on their offensive line. Colon has a base salary of $5.5 million in 2013, and that money may be better spent in retaining Lewis and at least one of the three offensive linemen—Ramon Foster, Max Starks and Doug Legursky—who are unrestricted free agents.
Also of concern is the running back situation. Though the Steelers had a disappointing run game in 2012, that doesn't mean they need to scrap all of their backs and start anew. Rashard Mendenhall is an unrestricted free agent, and while he and the Steelers were engaged in contract talks in December, it doesn't seem likely they will be keeping him except at an extreme discount.
Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are restricted free agents, but that doesn't mean the Steelers will be able to keep them without offering tenders that hopefully aren't matched or beaten by other interested teams. Dwyer, in particular, seems the most safe, simply because he was so productive in 2012. However, that productivity makes him a desirable commodity, which means the Steelers will need to find some cash to keep him in the fold.
The defensive line isn't immune to the crush of the salary cap. With nose tackle Casey Hampton an unrestricted free agent this year and his best-case-scenario backup Steve McLendon a restricted free agent, Hampton won't likely get a new deal.
Further, even if the Steelers don't see McLendon as their starting nose tackle this year, he'll be a better bargain than Hampton and at least provides depth. The Steelers also have two other nose tackles—Alameda Ta'Amu and Hebron Fangupo—currently on their roster, which makes it easier to let Hampton go.
Linebacker Larry Foote's fate rests on more than just financial factors—it also depends on how well 2012 draft pick Sean Spence has healed from his preseason knee injury and how prepared he is to take on a starter-level workload in what is essentially going to be his first season.
Spence, who was drafted in the third round as the inside backer of the future, hoped to sit behind Foote for one year, learn the ropes and then be ready to go just as Foote's contract expired. If the injury has set his readiness back a season, then the Steelers need to come up with money to keep Foote around for one more year—which, in turn, means even more cuts and restructures; if not, then Foote is likely done in Pittsburgh.
At least some of the Steelers' impending decisions won't be surprising ones. Wide receiver Mike Wallace, whom the team wouldn't have been able to afford either via contract or the franchise tag, is out the door, but luckily after a disappointing season. If his 2012 was like his 2011, perhaps it would be more painful to part with him, but as it presently stands, it does far less harm to let him get his payday elsewhere.
Safety Ryan Mundy, who has never looked comfortable when he's been put on the field, is also an unrestricted free agent. Though the Steelers need more depth at safety, that's something they can address in the draft. When desperate financial situations result in players like Mundy not getting new deals, it can make the roster cuts a degree less painful.
But, make no mistake, there are tough decisions ahead in Pittsburgh—tougher, even, than the ones they were forced to make last year.