As the Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2013 free-agency period, they once again find themselves well over the salary cap. This will once again result in the team having to free up space through a series of contract restructures and the release of veteran players.
At $13.9 million over the cap, the Steelers have the fifth-worst cap situation in the league.
Pittsburgh’s cap problems will likely mean that the team will lose most of its 18 unrestricted free agents. While many of these players only played limited roles last season, there are seven starters who they will have to replace.
Larry Foote may not be too difficult to replace, as good inside linebackers are almost always available in the draft. Even long-time nose tackle Casey Hampton will be fairly easy to replace given his decline in play and having a quality backup who is ready to take on a greater role in Steve McLendon.
Instead, it will be the challenge of replacing one of the best deep threats in the game in Mike Wallace and the most talented running back on the roster in Rashard Mendenhall.
Of course, there is also the Steelers' top priority, Keenan Lewis.
Lewis had a very good 2012 season, as he led the league in passes defensed. As a result, he may receive a free-agent contract offer that the Steelers cannot compete with.
Releasing highly paid veterans who are on the decline is one thing, but potentially losing some of your best young players due to cap problems is not acceptable.
That is the reality this year with the loss of Wallace and Lewis potentially on the horizon.
For years this was not an issue for the Steelers. Rather than spend mega dollars to lure free agents to Pittsburgh, the Steelers would instead invest in their own young talent.
This model worked out so well that the Steelers had their best decade of football since the 1970s, with three Super Bowl appearances and two titles. However, all of this success brought about a sense of loyalty to the players who helped the Steelers get there.
Players such as Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior and Casey Hampton were given big contracts at the backside of their careers. This was not an issue while these players were performing at a high level, but as soon as their play began to decline, the contracts began to add up.
Soon their production—or lack thereof—was outweighed by the value of the contracts, and the Steelers were paying veterans a premium to underperform.
Rather than part with veterans a year or two too early, as they did with Levon Kirkland, Joey Porter, Marvel Smith and others, they kept many veteran players for a year or two too long.
Have the Steelers been too loyal to their veterans?
As a result, the Steelers have an aging defense and lack the necessary financial resources to keep their own free agents
Loyalty is a great thing, but not when putting together an NFL roster.
The Steelers need to change their philosophy on free agency. They need to get back to their way of allowing veterans to walk in order to keep the younger, better talent in place.
Considering that they will be entering another transition year with so many free agents, the Steelers can begin to make a return to their old ways when dealing with the older players on the roster.
This means that they will not think twice about allowing Hampton and Max Starks to walk away.
Pittsburgh may even release James Harrison to provide cap relief necessary to retain its restricted free agents and possibly Lewis.
The decision on Harrison may be only the first of many that the Steelers must make over the next couple of seasons.
Players such as Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, Heath Miller and Troy Polamalu are all aging and will be coming to the end of their respective careers over the next few seasons. The Steelers will have to evaluate whether to bring any of these players back or if they need to part ways with them.
One thing is for certain, though, and that is if any of them are brought back, it must be at a reduced rate. But more often than not, expect the Steelers to make the tough call and shift these financial resources to younger options.
Ziggy Hood, Jason Worilds, Cameron Heyward, Marcus Gilbert and Maurkice Pouncey will all be up for contract extensions next season, and the Steelers will need the necessary cap space to pay these players.
While Hood, Worilds, Heyward and even Gilbert will not command huge contracts, they will all get modest offers. However, Pouncey will no doubt receive a huge contract offer, and the Steelers need to make sure they have the space to accommodate him and the others.
This likely means the loss of several fan favorites who helped lead the Steelers to a lot of wins over the years.
The long-time veterans may have done a lot for the team in the past, but how much can they help in the future?
The Steelers need to keep their top young players on the roster, and that means they must change their approach to free agency.
Making the moves that are necessary for the short- and long-term success of the team are not always the easiest moves, but they must be made in the best interest of the team and not in the name of loyalty.
Being loyal has caught up to the Steelers, and it is time return to what made them such a dominant team over the past decade—and that is investing in the young talent, even if it means the loss of some long-time greats.