All 32 NFL franchises face a universal foe each season. It’s the salary cap.
The league operates with a set ceiling (and floor) that teams must operate within financially. The league gives the cap a slight bump each year, but that makes it no less challenging as to how it is managed.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, it has historically been a case of staying close to the limit and spending on players in-house. Rarely will you see the Steelers go out and get an expensive free agent. And for the most part, this has worked.
This year, the Steelers find themselves entering the offseason over the cap, which is common. Typically, the Steelers’ front office has to get a little resourceful to make all the numbers work.
Will that take place this year? Let’s take a look at some of the important contracts on this roster and how to get them to a point where they are in black. Maybe even with enough left over to bring in a free agent or two.
All numbers and data within provided throughout courtesy of overthecap.com.
State of the Cap
- Steelers 2014 salary cap: approximately $136 million
- Projected 2014 NFL salary cap: approximately $126.3 million
These figures put the Steelers $9.7 million over the cap with 43 players under contract. Add in the eight additional players to get to satisfy Rule 51 at say $3.5 million total, and they are now $13.2 million over.
Some good news is that the Steelers have $1.35 million left over from 2013 they can use. So taking that away, they are $11.85 million over.
While this current situation is far from ideal, it is tenable.
There is some hope in the contracts currently on the roster. It will obviously take some creativity on the part of the Steelers and a willingness by several players to move money around a little for the greater good.
Let’s take a look at one scenario for the Steelers salary cap situation.
First, there’s the bad news. In this proposal, there are going to be some cuts. Some of these will be easier to swallow than others, but all are necessary. Here are the players on the chopping block.
Levi Brown, offensive tackle: Brown was traded for and subsequently injured before he could ever have a bearing on the team. Letting Brown walk means a savings of $6.25 million.
Ike Taylor, cornerback: Taylor has been a fixture on this team for many years.
However, diminished play paired with a bloated salary means its time to move on a restructure is impossible as it's the final year of his deal. An extension would reduce his cap hit in 2014 but would just spread his dead money onto subsequent years, so is not advised.
As long as Taylor is on the roster, the Steelers will not move forward with improving the secondary. This move would provide a savings of another $7.0 million.
Larry Foote, linebacker: Foote has been a good soldier for this team in both his tenures on the roster.
However, with young linebackers pushing him and his salary being what it is he can’t be kept. Again, this is as much about delaying the future as it is a fiscal decision. Savings by releasing Foote would be $1.83 million.
LaMarr Woodley, linebacker: Woodley’s contract is far too large for his level of production, but rather than restructure, Woodley is designated for a late cut, saving $8.00 million in cap room.
Troy’s Pay Cut
The Steelers may need to call safety Troy Polamalu and ask him to take one for the team. How much this is a necessity would depend on the goals of the team.
If the goal is to be a player in free agency, the front office can appeal to Polamalu to take a cut for the betterment of the team. In this scenario, Polamalu’s reduction in salary adds an extra $4 million in room to the cap.
Should the Steelers not be in the buying mood on the free agent market, this move would not happen.
Big Bucks for Big Ben
The Steelers have a couple of options here.
They could restructure quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s contract in order to save a significant amount of salary for 2014. This would convert his 2014 salary into a signing bonus.
This would reduce his cap hit from $18.95 million to $13.32 million, a savings of $6.63 million. The team could then look to offer Big Ben a long extension after the 2014 season.
The other option is to get to work on Big Ben's likely final contract with the Steelers earlier. The last season of his current deal is 2015 and teams typically try to lock up their franchise signal-callers at that point.
Here is what Roethlisberger's five-year extension with a $33 million signing bonus would look like.
- 2014: Salary: $1 million (guaranteed), Workout bonus: $500,000, Cap Hit: $14.9 million
- 2015: Salary: $9.5 million (guaranteed), Workout bonus: $500,000 Cap Hit: $23.4 million
- 2016: Salary: $10.5 million (guaranteed), Workout bonus: $500,000, Roster Bonus: $600,000, Cap Hit: $18.2m
- 2017: Salary: $11.5 million, Workout bonus: $500,000, Roster Bonus: $600,000, Cap Hit: $19.2 million
- 2018: Salary: $12.5 million, Workout bonus: $500,000, Roster Bonus: $600,000, Cap Hit: $20.2 million
- 2019: Salary: $19.8 million, Workout bonus: $500,000, Roster Bonus: $600,000, Cap Hit: $20.9 million
- 2020: Salary: $20 million, Workout bonus: $500,000, Roster Bonus: $600,000, Cap Hit: $21.1 million
This would cut nearly $4 million in cap from the 2014 cap and make Ben a Steeler for the rest of his career.
Must Extend Cortez Allen
It has become imperative that the Steelers do their part to ensure cornerback Cortez Allen remains a part of this team. This isn’t part of a cost-cutting move, but part of the cuts elsewhere help make locking up Allen possible.
This would be a four-year extension, including a $6.0 million signing bonus and $25.5 million total for the deal. It would be broken down like this.
- 2014: $1.0 million (cap hit: $2.3 million)
- 2015: $3.3 million (cap hit: $4.5 million)
- 2016: $4.1 million (cap hit: $5.8 million)
- 2017: $4.5 million (cap hit: $6.2 million)
- 2018: $5.0 million (cap hit: $6.7 million)
Locking up Jason Worilds
Comparatively speaking, the contracts that linebackers Paul Kruger and Connor Barwin would get seem to make a nice template to work off. Both players signed with new teams in 2013, so looking at the proposal below, it could be what the Steelers must sign Worilds for, because it would be what the market is for him.
This new contract would be a five-year, $30.5 million deal with $12 million guaranteed and a $6 million signing bonus.
- 2014: $1.5 million guaranteed, $2.7 million against the cap
- 2015: $4.5 million guaranteed, $5.7 million against the cap
- 2016: $5 million, $6.2 million against the cap
- 2017: $6 million, $7.2 million against the cap
- 2018: $7.5 million, $8.7 million against the cap
This is a financially sound deal, and it makes the blow of losing Woodley easier to take.
The Risk with Maurkice Pouncey
The Steelers need to hedge their bets with Pouncey.
I would propose a four-year extension, $6.28 million per year (which incorporates the $2.82 million roster bonus Pouncey was due in 2014). Salary guaranteed for the first two years and worth $33 million in total.
This saves about $1.4 million on the 2014 cap and ties up a key young player for four more years. This makes it essentially a two-year, $11 million deal if things go wrong with his recovery.
It poses a risk, but it's a risk worth taking. If the Steelers wait, he could come back next year, make another Pro Bowl, be an unrestricted free agent and probably be too costly to retain.
Extending Heath Miller
As part of the money crunch, the Steelers would need to give tight end Heath Miller a contract extension. This would take Miller to the twilight of his career and secure his position on the Steelers’ roster. The extension would look like this.
This would be a three-year extension that would include a $6 million signing bonus.
- 2014: $1.0 million salary, $5.94 million against the cap
- 2015: $4.0 million salary, $5.5 million against the cap
- 2016: $5.0 million salary, $6.5 million against the cap
- 2017: $6.0 million salary, $7.5 million against the cap
This extension would drop Miller’s cap hit from $9.5 million to $5.95 million for 2014.
Keeping Jerricho Cotchery
Cotchery is a free agent and has earned a new contract. The Steelers are going to let wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders walk, and lock up Cotchery for three more seasons.
This deal would be for three years, and include a $2 million signing bonus.
- 2014: $955,000 Salary, $1.79 million against the cap
- 2015: $2.25 million salary, $3.08 million against the cap
- 2016: $2.5 million salary, $3.33 million against the cap
Keeping the Defensive Line Intact
Defensive linemen Al Woods and Ziggy Hood both have done enough to earn new contracts as well. These will be very moderate contracts, each for three seasons. No guaranteed money in the first two seasons.
Both players would get identical contracts for three years, and both would include a $1 million signing bonus.
- 2014: $730,000 salary, $1.06 million against the cap
- 2015: $2.0 million salary, $2.33 million against the cap
- 2016: $2.2 million salary, $2.53 million against the cap
Odds and Ends
Cody Wallace: ERFA tender: $570,000 one-year contract.
Offered one-year minimum contracts to the following players: tight end David Johnson, offensive tackle Guy Whimper, safety Will Allen, running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, center Fernando Velasco, linebacker Stevenson Sylvester and long snapper Greg Warren.
Most of those guys are expendable but offering those sorts of deals is something the Steelers typically do prior to the draft to complete their roster.
All of these cuts and changes would net the Steelers something in the area of $14.86 million in cap room when it’s all said and done. With an amount like that the Steelers, could be serious players for a free agent like offensive tackle Branden Albert or tight end Jimmy Graham.
At the very least it would allow them some leverage with signing some more stable depth and quality at the backup spots.
Understand this isn’t a long-term fix. There will be cap issues again in 2015. However, what this does is keep the core of one of the best teams in the AFC in the second half of the 2013 season intact.