Salary Cap Issues Looming Large For Pittsburgh Steelers

Brian CarsonCorrespondent IMay 18, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Willie Parker #39 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs the ball against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Self-help guru Tony Robbins once said, "It's our decisions that determine our destiny."

The Pittsburgh Steelers, in particular General Manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin, will soon be facing some hard choices, and their decisions will go a long way in determining the future of the franchise.

The Steelers are barely under the cap, recently raised to $128 million by the NFL, at a paltry $5.6 million.

That would leave the organization at a standstill, unable to offer extensions to most, if any, of their key unrestricted free agents.

Pittsburgh has nine starters playing in the final year of their contracts. The list includes: S Ryan Clark, RT Willie Colon, NT Casey Hampton, C Justin Hartwig, DE Brett Keisel, TE Heath Miller, RB Willie Parker, LT Max Starks, and K Jeff Reed.

All of them could become free agents at the end of the season. It's the nature of the business. Hard choices need to be made.

If a new collective bargaining agreement can be hammered out before free agency, the Steelers would benefit. Colon and Miller would become restricted free agents instead of unrestricted, and teams would be able to place the franchise tag on two players instead of one.

Even so, some players will have to be purged from the roster because of how tight Pittsburgh is against the cap.

Despite the increase in cap space by some $12 million to the current $128 million figure, the Steelers are still hurting because of the increase in Ben Roethlisberger's cap hit.

Big Ben, who had an $8 million hit last year, will count a whopping $13.2 million against the cap this season. Throw in rising veteran salaries, rookies who need to be signed, and you can see the dilemma facing Colbert and Co.

If the collective bargaining agreement is not done on time, the pruning of the roster begins in earnest.

Hampton, Starks and Miller are necessities. The trio is too important for the Steelers' brass to let get away. Reed and Clark should be kept as well, because there's no one good enough behind them.

Miller, Reed and Clark could be signed to extensions during the season because their money demands won't be as gaudy as some. The rest will have to wait until the season ends.

Hampton and Starks will ask for big money, including nice, fat signing bonuses. In order to meet the duo's demands, Keisel, Colon, Hartwig, and Parker are probably playing their last games in a Pittsburgh uniform.

Keisel, who counts for $5 million against the cap this season, is a definite goner. Rookie Ziggy Hood, Pittsburgh's first-round selection, is being groomed as his replacement. Plus, Hood will be much cheaper as he plays out his rookie contract.

Parker is a decent back, but injury problems have taken a toll. With Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, and Frank Summers in the backfield, the Steelers can afford to let Parker go.

The franchise has done a good job remaining competitive, while managing the cap, without hurting their future. The Steelers have a philosophy of building from within with the draft being the key to the organization's success. It's worked for them in the past and needs to once again.

The Steelers face some tough decisions in the coming months, and no organization is better equipped to handle such circumstances. They have solid leadership on the field and in the front office. All will work together to make those hard choices.

And it's those decisions that will determine the future of the most successful franchise in the Super Bowl era.