Not surprisingly, the Pittsburgh Steelers were careening into the start of the 2013 league year significantly over the NFL's salary cap—to the tune of about $13.9 million, assuming the cap stayed at around $122 million for the season.
And, as usual, the team would need to restructure contracts as part of its attempt to get under the cap before the March 12 deadline.
This process has already begun, with linebacker Lawrence Timmons and then wide receiver Antonio Brown agreeing to restructures. On Thursday, the third restructure became finalized with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reworking his current deal (per The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette) to free up $6 million in cash for the season.
The moves have given the Steelers a total of $14.4 million in cap breathing room (per SteelersDepot.com's Dave Bryan) in just a few days' time, and more are ahead—linebacker LaMarr Woodley will likely be reworking his deal (per Bryan) in the coming days as well.
This is nothing new for the Steelers—season after season, they've found themselves well over the salary cap and needing a combination of restructures and roster cuts to free up enough cash to pay their own players, re-sign necessary free agents and afford their rookie class.
It's a dangerous gamble, however, because it relies on three things in order to work: An increase in the salary cap from one year to the next, higher-paid players willing to restructure their contracts and the willingness to cut ties with veterans.
So far, the gamble has paid off in the Steelers' favor and they've been able to retain some of their most effective and expensive players, while at the same time building a younger roster for the long term.
The big worry about repeated restructures is that, at some point, all of that deferred money will come due. It's not a pay cut—it's moving this year's money to subsequent ones and converting guaranteed salaries into bonuses.
For example, with Roethlisberger, $9 million of his $11.6 million 2013 salary has been converted into a signing bonus, reducing his cap hit to $13.595 million this year.
However, his cap costs will go up by an additional $5 million or thereabouts in the next two years. This will likely be mitigated by a new contract that can extend the money out over a longer span—effectively a restructure in itself.
With the 32 players currently under contract, the Steelers' 2014 roster costs will total $122.5 million (per Bryan).
Clearly, that will go up once they have a full roster, but the biggest concern in Pittsburgh is that over $104 million of that is tied up with just 10 players—Roethlisberger, Woodley, Timmons, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and so on—a lot of whom are getting close to hanging up their cleats, meaning contract extensions and restructures won't be on the table for some of these expensive players.
The only solution, therefore, seems to be parting ways with some of them or others retiring. Though the financial situation isn't presently dire enough for this to be the case in 2013, 2014 might bring massive changes for the Steelers—the sort that could make last year's veteran purge look like small change in comparison.
While some may argue that this strategy of repeatedly deferring payments to veterans will ultimately damage the Steelers' ability to remain competitive, it's actually the opposite when executed properly.
This isn't like the New York Jets, who wrapped up too much money in too few players without escape; the Steelers craft their contracts carefully, providing them with long-term options while still keeping the highest-paid members of their roster happy.
It's a tightrope walk in some respects, certainly, but it's the only way the Steelers have been able to afford to pay Roethlisberger like the top-tier quarterback he is while also having other expensive players like Polamalu, Harrison, Woodley and Heath Miller at the same time.
With Omar Khan's deft financial hand, the Steelers have found themselves in a better overall position than other teams that have attempted the same approach.
Yes, there will be cap casualties and, yes, there will be a few free agents that the Steelers may want to re-sign that they cannot afford to, but without handling the salary cap in this way—restructure after restructure—there would have been no way for the Steelers to keep so many integral veteran players.
Roethlisberger's restructure—as well as those for Timmons and Brown and the upcoming one for Woodley—creates a bit of anxiety to be sure. Putting off paying these players could strain the Steelers in the future and the attrition could be frightening.
However, with veterans getting older and the salary cap likely to go up significantly in 2014, the Steelers aren't putting themselves in as bad a position as it first seems.