The salary cap has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers in recent years. A top-heavy cap structure has limited the moves that the front office could make in recent years, and this trend will continue with the start of free agency just around the corner.
However, unlike previous years where the Steelers had to purge their roster of several high-priced veterans to become compliant with the cap, a few relatively pain-free moves will get the job done.
Kevin Colbert recently told a group of writers, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required), that while the team has to make some moves to get under the cap by March 11, he believes it will be “manageable."
“It’s safe to say we’re exploring different ideas with different players,” Colbert said.
Several options that Colbert may consider would be the release of a player to free agency, contract restructures or contract extensions. The goal will be not only to get under the salary-cap figure for 2014 but also to provide flexibility to make moves in free agency.
The good news is that Colbert’s job is much easier with the announcement that the 2014 salary cap would be set at $133 million.
The NFL has notified clubs that the salary cap for 2014 will be $133 million.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) February 28, 2014
The increase in cap represents a $10 million increase over last year’s cap limit. An increase this significant provides Pittsburgh with a greater opportunity to make moves during the free-agency period, whether it is by signing its own talent or exploring the market to bring in new talent.
This article will examine the Steelers’ salary-cap situation and map out their plans as it comes to constructing the 2014 roster through free agency.
Steelers’ Current Salary-Cap Situation
On March 11, the Pittsburgh Steelers—and every other NFL team for that matter—must be in compliance with the Rule of 51. According to Over the Cap, the rule stats that “only the top 51 cap charges (plus dead money) count towards a teams salary cap.”
For the Steelers, what appeared to be a dire cap situation has become very manageable with the news of the salary-cap increase.
According to Spotrac.com, the Steelers have $135,722,593 committed to their top 51 contracts with another $4,552,931 in dead money for a cap figure of $140,275,524.
When about $1.352 million of unused cap space that will roll over to 2014 is included into these figures, the Steelers sit at just over $5.9 million above the 2014 salary-cap figure of $133 million.
|Rank||Top 51||Dead Money||Estimated Total Cap||Cap Space|
That is much better than the $10 million over the cap that was predicted in December by Joel Corry.
Despite the good news, there is still work to be done by Pittsburgh’s front office. They now rank 31st in cap space, meaning that 30 other teams have more money to spend in free agency.
The Steelers are rarely big spenders when it comes to bringing in outside free agents, so limited space to work with will not be a major problem. A bigger issue is filling out the roster.
Pittsburgh has 22 players who are scheduled to be free agents with all but one being unrestricted.
Though there may not be a high priority in signing many of these players, the Steelers still need 53 players to fill out their roster, and they cannot depend on the draft to fill all of these spots.
Impending Free Agents
On paper, a group of 22 free agents sounds like a daunting task for the Steelers’ brass to manage, but that is not the case. Only seven of these players had at least six starts during the 2013 season.
|Name||Position||2013 Starts||2013 Cap Hits||Age|
Steelers.com and Spotrac.com
Of these seven players, Jason Worilds would be the top priority for the Steelers to re-sign. At just 25 years old, he had his best season in 2013 in which he had 63 tackles and eight sacks.
Worilds had struggled early in his career with injuries and production. He found himself behind rookie Jarvis Jones this year and finally broke out when he got playing time at left outside linebacker in place of an injured LaMarr Woodley.
Steelers President Art Rooney II named Worilds as a target on a conference call with season-ticket holders, via Steelers.com.
There are probably a couple of guys we need to look at. Jason Worilds is certainly somebody who came on and showed what he can do, particularly over the second half of the season. The truth of the matter is there is a lot of work that needs to be done between now and making some of those final decisions.
The new league year doesn’t start until March 11. Between now and then, we will be trying to make those decisions and having conversations with some of the players’ agents, seeing what we can work out. There’s no doubt we have a number of free agents we are going to want to keep. I assure you we are working hard on making sure that it happens.
But not everyone believes that Worilds will be re-signed.
I’ve come to believe it will be LaMarr Woodley not Jason Worilds who will be #Steelers starting LOLB in 2014. Worilds hits FA & he’s gone.— David Todd (@DavidMTodd) February 26, 2014
While Worilds appears to be a player on the rise, he does have concerns. He has been unable to stay healthy throughout his career—which includes missing the final game of 2013—and he only has one good stretch of production in his career. That came this season when he had seven sacks in eight games.
It is no wonder why some favor Woodley. In fact, Pro Football Focus gave Woodley a rating of 10.8 and Worilds a 9.5. Woodley earned pass-rusher rating of 10.7, while Worilds was only at 2.8 as noted by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required).
Besides their production, there are also complications when it comes to Woodley’s contract, as reported by Bouchette (subscription required).
It has been discussed often, but in a nutshell (and barring any contract restructuring), Woodley is scheduled to count $13.59 million against their cap this year if they keep him (and count again in 2015 and 2016).
If they cut him before June 1, he would count $14.17 million and be wiped off the books for 2015 and 2016. If they cut him after June 1, he would count $5.59 million this year and $8.98 million in 2015.
But when it comes down to it, re-signing Worilds may be out of the Steelers’ control.
The breakout season for Worilds has caught the eye of more than a few teams around the league. According to Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net, there are at least 12 teams interested in Worilds.
Which player should be the top priority for the Steelers to sign?
Such interest in Worilds will surely drive up his price and may keep him out of the Steelers’ reach.
Decisions on other players will not be so difficult.
Given their interest in Louis Delmas, the Steelers seem keen on the idea of signing a free agent at safety to replace Ryan Clark.
The Steelers also plan to select a "tall receiver" early in the draft, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required). This provides a strong indication that they are ready to move on from Emmanuel Sanders.
Instead, they will likely promote Markus Wheaton to starter and re-sign Jerricho Cotchery as a No. 3 receiver. Cotchery only had a $1.5 million cap hit last season and should receive a similar contract this year. That is not bad for someone who put up 10 touchdowns last year.
A more interesting situation comes at defensive end where Cameron Heyward is the only player on the roster with significant experience. With Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Al Woods all free agents, there is plenty of work to do here.
Hood would seem like a no-brainer to re-sign. He is young, durable and has plenty of starting experience, but the former first-round selection has largely been a disappointment.
As the 117th-ranked free agent by Rotoworld’s Evan Silva (via Yahoo! Sports). Hood may be better served to move on to a team that runs a 4-3 defense. Here is what Silva had to say about Hood:
“Failed 2009 first-round pick. Has graded negatively in PFF ratings four straight seasons. Just turned 27. May generate some interest based on name value.”
Instead, the Steelers could bring back Woods and Keisel on relatively small contracts and use them both in a heavy rotation.
Of the other free agents, expect the Steelers to make a strong pitch to keep Jonathan Dwyer, Fernando Velasco, Will Allen and Greg Warren. Each player should be affordable, having provided valuable depth last year, and should continue to do so moving forward.
Players in Need of Extensions
When the Steelers were building their Super Bowl teams of the 2000s, they did so by quality drafting and keeping their young talent in town. That meant signing many of their players a year before they hit free agency.
The opposite happened last season when not only did the Steelers not extend the contracts of Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis in the final year of their respective deals, but they also allowed them to leave as free agents.
There are few out there who would argue that the Steelers couldn’t have used Lewis last season and in the future, but what is done is done. They can only move forward at this point, and with more cap room to work with, there is no reason why the Steelers can’t look to extend multiple contracts this offseason.
There are four players who should be under serious consideration for contract extensions: Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Heyward and Cortez Allen.
|Player||2014 Cap Hit|
At the top of the priority list should be Roethlisberger. It has been recent tradition for the Steelers to extend the contract of their quarterback when there are two years remaining on his contract. That is the situation that they are in now, and there is little reason to sway from this practice.
Everyone is on the same page when it comes to Roethlisberger’s status with the Steelers.
“It's unanimous that we want Ben to be a Steeler for the rest of his career. There's nobody that I'd rather have or the franchise would rather have than Ben. He's won for us, there's still a lot of tread of the tires.”
An increase in the league’s salary cap makes it possible for the two sides to get the job done. Not only can they lower his cap hit for the immediate future to provide the team with more room to work with, they can also lock up their franchise quarterback for the remainder of his career.
It would also be worthwhile for the Steelers to lock up one of his favorite weapons—Heath Miller.
Miller is a year removed from an ACL injury and remains one of the top offensive threats on the team. Though he only had one touchdown, Miller had 58 receptions in 14 games played and remained an effective blocker.
At 31 years old, Miller should still have several seasons of quality play left in him. By extending his contract, the Steelers could reduce his $9.466 million cap hit which would provide them with more room to sign an outside free agent or one of their own young players.
One of those players should be Heyward.
Heyward came on strong last season as highlighted by Teresa Varley of Steelers.com. Pro Football Focus gave him an 11.4 rating, which finished only behind Troy Polamalu on the Steelers defense (h/t Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review).
Though it may seem like a lock for the Steelers to extend Heyward this offseason, which may not be the case due to a fifth-year option that the Steelers must decide to exercise by May 3. The rookie-option procedure is explained clearly by Jason from Over the Cap.
Pittsburgh can pick up a fifth-year team option which would pay Heyward the average of the top 25 defensive ends in the league since he was drafted between picks No. 11 and 32. This value was about $8.5 million in 2013.
Rather than take the option, the Steelers could avoid the high guaranteed salary and extend his contract this offseason. But if they do so, it should before the May 3 deadline so they do not risk losing him next season.
Another player they do not want to wait on is Allen.
The Steelers do not want to lose Allen like they lost Keenan Lewis last season. Instead, they should extend his contract this offseason.
Allen should be affordable since he has yet to lock down a full-time starting job. In his limited action, he has shown the ability to be a very good starter, but he needs to develop more consistency.
With another full offseason under his belt, expect Allen to secure a starting role next year.
As far as other players with one year remaining on their contracts, do not expect the Steelers to touch Polamalu’s contract. He can play it out, and they can decide on his future next year.
Ike Taylor would be a prime candidate to be approached with a pay cut as the Steelers did with James Harrison last season. Given his relationship with Dan Rooney, expect Taylor to be open to returning to Pittsburgh at a reduced price.
Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert will both be free agents in 2015, but the Steelers should take a wait-and-see approach with these two as they evaluate their performance during the 2014 season.
Which position is the highest priority for the Steelers in free agency?
The Steelers have not signed a starter in free agency since Ryan Clark in 2006. That could all change this year with the bump in the salary cap.
Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required) reported that Rooney said that the Steelers would have “our eyes open” in the free-agent market.
“Now, being at the combine and seeing who might be available, that’s when we have to see what we might be able to accomplish in the draft as opposed to what we can accomplish in free agency,” Rooney said. “There are a lot of pieces to it, but you try to evaluate the best way to make them all fit.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers could add depth at running back and along the offensive line, but the main focus should be the defense.
The Steelers need to address depth issues at every level of the defense. Early indications are that they may look to find a new starting free safety in free agency.
Louis Delmas visited with the team last week, and while he left without a contract, it signaled that the Steelers are looking elsewhere for help on defense.
Delmas is unlikely to be the last safety to visit with Pittsburgh. There will be other mid-tiered safeties on the market that would fit in well in Pittsburgh and not demand an outrageous contract. In other words, do not expect the Steelers to make a run at Jairus Byrd.
Besides safety, the Steelers could look for an upgrade at inside linebacker next to Lawrence Timmons. Larry Foote missed most of last season with an injured biceps and is not a lock to return in 2014.
Vince Williams replaced Foote but was unable to establish himself as a permanent starter as the season progressed. Rather than settle with what they have, the Steelers could dip into the market for a linebacker such as Jameel McClain.
McClain is only 28 years old and should not command a big contract. The Steelers would certainly be able to wait until the first wave of free agency is over prior to taking a look at him.
Another area of concern for the Steelers is the defensive line where three defensive ends will be free agents.
Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain suggested Red Bryant as a potential target for the Steelers.
Bryant would come to the Steelers as a starter at defensive end where he would help boost a run defense that finished 21st in the league last season—that is if the price is right.
With the boost in cap space, the Steelers will have the ability to make moves in free agency, but they do not have unlimited room, which means they will have to be conservative with the moves that they make.