The Pittsburgh Steelers will have one sole focus the next several weeks. That will be to get under the league's projected $121.5 million salary cap for the 2013 season. Currently, the Steelers sit almost $12 million over that figure.
There are sure to be some tough decisions, sad goodbyes and financial juggling during the weeks leading up to free agency and then the draft.
Here's a current look at where the Pittsburgh Steelers are at each position as well as some thoughts on how they might proceed in this fiscally tight season.
Before getting into the details of each position, let's have an overall look at where the Pittsburgh Steelers are at for 2013 according to Spotrac's figures, which will be used throughout to discuss each position:
Active Contract Money: $134,839,091
Dead Money: $464,207
2012 Rollover: $1,400,000
Current Cap Number: $133,498,298
2013 NFL Cap: $121.5 million
Projected Overage: $11,998,298
Total Cap Number for Position: $19,595,000
Under Contract: Ben Roethlisberger
Free Agents: Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich
Right now, Ben Roethlisberger is the only quarterback under contract for 2013. That means that some combination of free agency and draft moves will be necessary just to fill out the depth chart.
The first move, however, will be to lower Ben Roethlisberger’s 2013 cap hit by converting some of his salary into a signing bonus or pushing off some of it until next year. This has become an annual event with this contract, but cap guru Omar Khan and GM Kevin Colbert always get it done.
Beyond that, the team should look to add an inexpensive free agent (Matt Moore) and a developmental draft choice (Landry Jones or Zac Dysert) to round out the depth chart. Bringing back Leftwich or Batch at this point would be ridiculous given that they don’t fit into the system run by Todd Haley and that they have trouble staying healthy.
Total Cap Number for Position: $1,028,669
Under Contract: Will Johnson (FB)
Free Agents: Jonathan Dwyer (Restricted), Isaac Redman (Restricted), Rashard Mendenhall, Baron Batch, Chris Rainey
With no running backs currently under contract (recently released Chris Rainey is the only running back figuring into the cap number for the position at this time and Johnson is a fullback), this position will need the most attention on offense in the draft and free agency.
Dwyer figures to return on a restricted tender offer that Pittsburgh will use as a “make good” contract. Dwyer will either perform and get a longer deal, or fail and become an unrestricted free agent. Redman could return the same way, but the team can use the money he’d cost more intelligently elsewhere.
The market doesn’t look to have any fits for the Steelers, so the best move will be to go with a back or two in the draft. Ray Graham and Montee Ball make the most sense. If the Steelers can use the 17th overall choice as bait to acquire more picks in a trade, they could have enough picks to take both players and truly revitalize their ground game.
Total Cap Number for Position: $9,437,369
Under Contract: Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, David Gilreath, Derek Moye
Free Agents: Emmanuel Sanders (Restricted), Plaxico Burress
Of all of the team’s restricted free agents, the one that Pittsburgh cannot afford to lose is Sanders, a dynamic young playmaker that helps the team considerably. He’s still working to learn Todd Haley’s system and adapt to it after excelling as a rookie in Bruce Arians’ attack, but he’s far too valuable to be let go.
The same goes for Burress, an unrestricted free agent whose size and physicality give him a big edge when it comes to playing in tight quarters. He’d be an excellent red-zone target for Ben Roethlisberger to use and he can also operate effectively out of the slot.
This is a position where the team could spend a late draft choice to add some developmental talent and hope to strike gold as they did with Brown and Sanders. If not, keeping Sanders and Burress would still be enough to give the team a dangerous receiving corps in 2013.
Total Cap Number for Position: $9,411,307
Under Contract: Heath Miller, David Paulson, Jamie McCoy
Free Agents: Leonard Pope
Pope didn’t really bring much to the offense that couldn’t be duplicated by another player, rookie or veteran. He was a decent blocker who could catch the rare pass thrown in his direction. That was about it.
The real problem here is that there are no indications yet on when Miller will be able to return from his late-season knee injury. Paulson should be fine as the starter in the interim, but that leaves the depth razor-thin at a position that is very important from both a blocking and receiving aspect.
McCoy isn’t a bad backup player, but he’s one-dimensional and will likely be only a blocker in the jumbo formations that the team employs at the goal line.
One option would be David Johnson, who missed all of last season with an injury. He has been the team’s fullback before, but is a natural tight end. If he’s healthy and ready to return, the Steelers could probably sign him to an inexpensive deal to serve as Paulson’s backup and then as the third tight end.
Total Cap Number for Position: $15,028,148
Under Contract: Maurkice Pouncey, Willie Colon, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum, Mike Adams, John Malecki
Free Agents: Max Starks, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky
The first thing that Pittsburgh should do to help remedy their cap situation is to restructure Willie Colon to a more cap-friendly deal that takes into account his terrible track record with injuries. If he won’t agree to it or it cannot be done, he needs to be released. The cap savings are minimal (less than $2 million) but it's better than carrying over $7 million in a contract for a player that hasn’t been healthy for more than three years.
The free agents, as difficult as it will be, must be allowed to leave. Beachum showed enough at tackle to believe that he could be the primary backup there if he isn’t starting at guard in place of Colon. Adams figures to be better once healthy and with a full offseason to work on learning the system.
Jack Bicknell, Jr., the team’s new offensive line coach, will have a lot to say about how they proceed. His blocking scheme figures to be different from what Pittsburgh utilized with Sean Kugler. That could mean a free-agent addition who is adept at that or a draft pick or two to challenge the current players.
This is definitely a position that could use a middle-round draft pick to help shore up the depth.
Total Cap Number for Position: $20,370,658
Under Contract: Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, Cameron Heyward, Al Woods
Free Agents: Casey Hampton, Steve McLendon (Restricted)
The era of Casey Hampton has to come to an end. It’s very difficult to say goodbye to a player that has been voted to five Pro Bowls and has been a stalwart starter for more than a decade. Hampton had a good season too despite returning from a knee injury suffered late in 2011.
McLendon, like Emmanuel Sanders on offense, is a player Pittsburgh simply must retain. After the failed drafting of Alameda Ta’amu, he is the sure future of the position. The Steelers can keep him with a tender offer but would be wise to work out some kind of longer deal that keeps him in Pittsburgh on an escalating contract.
At defensive end, the Steelers could elect to restructure with Brett Keisel to gain some limited cap relief (his $4.5 million deal is not even near the most offensive of the bunch), but are more likely to stay the course with the current personnel and cap numbers.
The Steelers probably won’t make a move here beyond signing McLendon, although they could elect to get a young defensive tackle in the draft to compete with him or as insurance in case he is injured.
Total Cap Number for Position: $38,729,046
Under Contract: James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Jason Worilds, Chris Carter, Sean Spence
Free Agents: Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester (Restricted)
All three of the starters under contract (Harrison, Woodley, Timmons) need to have their contracts restructured for some cap relief. This position is a mess in that regard.
Harrison is potentially a cap casualty. He has said that he won’t take a pay cut to stay in Pittsburgh and his contract is no bargain considering he only had six sacks in 2012. Slated to count over $10 million against the 2013 cap, he may be too old and expensive to keep.
Jason Worilds could replace Harrison in the lineup. He seemed to be ready during his brief stints in 2012 and compiled five sacks.
Woodley’s contract extension isn’t paying off yet, but he has been injured in both seasons since signing. He will need to redo his deal to bring down the cap number, but he isn’t going anywhere. The same goes for Timmons, who has steadily improved each season.
The team needs to add through the draft here. Unless they can free up enough money to make a serious run at Rey Maualuga, there isn’t a free agent worth buying. In the draft, they could go high with Kevin Minter or Alec Ogletree to replace either Foote inside or Harrison outside.
They will also hope for a healthy campaign from Spence, who should return from a nasty knee injury suffered in the preseason. If he can come back and be the valuable piece he was expected to be on draft day last year, the Steelers will have more flexibility with how they approach this position.
Total Cap Number for Position: $13,465,097
Under Contract: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Justin King, Josh Victorian
Free Agents: Keenan Lewis
Lewis is a free agent that Pittsburgh would like to retain and needs to retain, but it probably won’t happen given the team’s lack of cap space and flexibility. Unless Lewis is willing to accept a below-market contract to stay, he will find a better deal somewhere else and take it.
The good news is that there’s plenty of talent left on the roster. This is also a position that will be deep in the draft. Pittsburgh could get a good corner late in the first round with either Desmond Trufant or Johnthan Banks available. That will help offset the loss of Lewis.
Cortez Allen proved last year that he has the talent to start. He just needs to improve his consistency. With him having a year like Lewis did in 2012 and a draft pick or two developing behind him, the Steelers could have the makings of a solid cornerback corps.
Total Cap Number for Position: $15,369,167
Under Contract: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Robert Golden
Free Agents: Will Allen, Ryan Mundy
Allen and Mundy are goners. Pittsburgh doesn’t need them and they haven’t brought anything to the table during their tenure to make them worth a new contract.
The money would be much better spent on a pair of draft choices. Matt Elam is the one player that fits a need on this team that is worth the 17th overall choice (unless someone falls like David DeCastro did last year). He’s a physical, athletic player that has some of the same skills as Polamalu and Clark.
Later in the draft, Duke Williams or Shawn Williams would also be good selections. Both are more raw and need time to develop, but they could become excellent starters given time and could give the team another bona fide safety duo for the future.
Total Cap Number for Position: $2,649,166
Under Contract: Shaun Suisham, Drew Butler
Free Agents: Greg Warren
When is a long snapper the most likely free agent to return to a team that has more than a dozen players hitting the market? When that team has little money to spend and when that player is one of the few successful pieces in an otherwise flawed unit, it makes sense.
Warren needs to be retained. He’s been a steady player for years and he’s finally put some injury problems in the past.
Beyond that, there isn’t really much need to do anything here. The team could bring in an undrafted free agent to challenge the inconsistent Butler and will likely do the same with a kicker to use during camp, but Suisham and Butler will be the duo when things get going this fall.