The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a bit of a salary cap bind for the 2014 season.
It's not the salary cap hell that some teams endure. Going into the offseason, the Steelers are $9.7 million over the cap, with a shortage of eight players to satisfy roster requirements.
Projecting those eight to be signed for very meager contracts, a best-case scenario, still leaves the Steelers hovering around $11.85 million over the cap to start the offseason.
What is typically the norm for the Steelers' front office is to nickel and dime their way to just enough cap space to sign rookies and the occasional value-minded free agent. Hardly the most exciting of strategies, but it has yielded some success.
This year, however, the Steelers have the possibility to clear the books of some big, bloated contracts being paid to players who might not deserve them. The purge is never easy, and it is rarely clean. However, just remember the quote from the movie of the same name:
"Just remember all the good the purge does."
However, who is to be offered up for the purge? There are six players whose combination of salary, age and lack of production makes them viable candidates. Here's a look at the six potential candidates for some deep salary cap savings.
These aren't simply the six highest payed players on the roster—players like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown are at or near the top. The point is, in order to keep players like this, cuts must be made elsewhere.
There are two fundamental points to remember.
First, this is not an endorsement to cut ALL of these players. This is a breakdown of six players who could be cut and the savings they'd create. The fact is, players like cornerback Cortez Allen and defensive end Cameron Heyward are approaching free agency. Holding onto aging veterans at the expense of the talented youth on this roster is not a prudent move.
The other issue is all of these players, save for offensive tackle Levi Brown and safety Troy Polamalu, could be prime candidates for contract re-structures to save cap space and keep them on the roster. The problem with that is in many cases, you are simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. In the end that money is going to come due.
All salary cap figures courtesy of overthecap.com.
Unless specified, all stats are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.
2014 Cap Number: $11.942 million
Cap Savings: $7 million
Cornerback Ike Taylor is a soon-to-be 34-year old with a massive cap hit. Taylor has 134 career starts in his 11-year career, but the second half of the 2013 season showed his best years might be behind him.
It really was a tale of two halves for Taylor. At the start of the season, Taylor was playing with the confidence and swagger we've now come to expect. He was called upon to cover the opposition's top wide receivers, and he did an admirable job.
However, as the season progressed, teams started to pick on Taylor and exposed him. The Steelers' front office will need to decide if the level of play Taylor showed at the end of the season is worth the nearly $12.0 million he is due in 2014, or if they should wager on a return to form from the veteran.
If the Steelers do choose to cut ties with Taylor, the $7 million is savings would go a long way toward curing the salary cap ills of this team. This would create a gap in the depth chart that would have to be filled. If they opt to replace Taylor in free agency, the price would be steep.
However, should they opt to draft a replacement, veteran cornerback William Gay will likely be pressed into starting duty until the rookie is ready to start.
2014 Cap Number: $10.877 million
Cap Savings: $8.25 million
The same draft that brought Ike Taylor to the Steelers also gave them future Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu. Fans have cheered No. 43 and his flowing locks for more than a decade as he made highlight-reel plays week after week.
Unfortunately, 2013 saw Polamalu's role diminished to that of an in-the-box hybrid safety/linebacker. Rarely did he venture beyond the box, and while he did have a solid season, it was still far from the type of season you pay an excess of $10 million for.
The Steelers need to be able to do more than a single-high safety and trotting out extra defensive backs to account for the passing game.
But what to do if Polamalu is gone? Well, should fellow safety Ryan Clark choose not to re-sign with the Steelers, both starting spots would be open. Safety Shamarko Thomas should be in a position to drop into one spot immediately.
The spot opposite Thomas would be up for grabs between a couple of promising young players. However, it is more reasonable to think the Steelers will draft a suitable replacement and use the veterans to fill the gap.
2014 Cap Number: $13.590 million
Cap Savings (Post-June 1st): $8 million
Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley is an interesting case. The only other viable option for Woodley's spot opposite Jarvis Jones is free-agent linebacker Jason Worilds.
Ideally, the Steelers would like to sign Worilds back to a new contract. However, it is hard to say if Worilds will want to do that if he isn't going to be the starting left outside linebacker. That's a value judgment the Steelers will need to make.
Do they put their eggs in the Worilds basket or let him leave and continue to pay Woodley is exorbitant salary? Worilds is five years younger than Woodley and would likely come much cheaper.
The other interesting aspect of Woodley's salary is that the savings only come if he's cut after June 1. On some level, this fits in exactly with what the Steelers like to do. Don't be shocked if they free up sufficient space to get Worilds under contract and designate Woodley for a late cut.
Then the Steelers can use that space to hit the bargains that will be on the free-agent market when other teams make cuts based more on finances as opposed to lack of talent.
2014 Cap Number: $9.466 million
Cap Savings: $6.02 million
This list sure appears to be filled with beloved Steelers, doesn't it? Unfortunately, this is the reality of the situation. Tight end Heath Miller has been a great player for the past nine seasons. However, Miller will turn 32 next season and could be a potential cap casualty.
Of all the players on this list, Miller is probably the most safe, as his cap hit is slightly less than the others, and his production remains high. Miller should be a better candidate for a re-structure than to be cut outright at this point.
Nonetheless, as we have all come to understand, expect the unexpected. If money is tight and Miller won't work with the front office, that $6.02 million in savings would look pretty good.
If the Steelers did cut Miller loose, there's no doubt they'd have to find a talented replacement. Miller has been the most productive tight end in franchise history and would be missed.
While the team does have some nice players on the roster, there is no one who can match what Miller does. That's another reason he would be low on the priority list for potential cuts, even if the savings were substantial.
2014 Cap Number: $6.25 million
Cap Savings: $6.25 million
If there's a dead man walking on this list, it is offensive tackle Levi Brown. It is not difficult, looking at his past, to connect the dots on his future. The Steelers traded for Brown in hopes he'd provide a spark along the offensive line.
What he did instead was to suffer a season-ending triceps injury just days after the trade—and before he could even take a snap in a game. Yes, he was injured in pre-game warm-ups of his first game.
Brown is due $6.25 million for 2014, but with none of it guaranteed. Brown is as good as gone. It's hard to even speculate if he will play anywhere in 2014, but with the ability to drop that much dead weight off the roster means he is not going to be playing in Pittsburgh.
The other good news is that since Brown was never really part of the rotation, he won't need replacing. In fact, this like really came together and played well down the stretch. It is debatable whether or not the Steelers need to address the offensive line at all this offseason outside of bringing their own back, but there's no doubt Brown won't be part of that.
2014 Cap Number: $5.514 million
Cap Savings: $4.113 million
Sometimes the decision to keep a player or not has added risk. When a player is coming off of an injury like center Maurkice Pouncey is, the Steelers have a decision to make.
They could plan on Pouncey returning to full speed and leave his $5.514 million cap hit in place. They might even go ahead and sign him to an extension prior to the season, trying to buy low, so to speak.
Or, do they look at centers Fernando Velasco and Cody Wallace and choose not to risk it with Pouncey? Because while you cannot deny that a healthy Pouncey is great, can you deny that this line played very well in his absence? Guessing wrong about Pouncey could cost the Steelers a lot of money down the road.
This team could do a lot with $4.113 million in cap room and fill some significant holes on both sides of the football.