The Pittsburgh Steelers announced on Wednesday that they have come to agreements with tight end Heath Miller and safety Troy Polamalu to extend and restructure their current contracts, keeping them both in Pittsburgh for three more seasons.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Polamalu's deal is for $20 million and gives the Steelers $4.5 million more to work with against the salary cap:
Steelers gave S Troy Polamalu a three-year, $20 million extension that saves Pittsburgh $4.5 million against the salary cap this year.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 5, 2014
Miller, who had a $6 million base salary in 2014 has now had that reduced to $1.02 million, with the $5 million difference converted into a bonus, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His base salary for each of the final two years of the deal will be $4 million, with cap hits of $5.67 million. The two moves will save the Steelers $7.8 million in cap space for 2014.
This is great news considering the Steelers are still over the league's 2014 salary cap of $133 million and must get under it by the start of the league year on March 11.
While the restructures fit the Steelers' pattern in recent years—pushing money into the future for cap savings immediately—the deals for Miller and Polamalu give the Steelers an easier out in 2015 and 2016 if need be:
Miller’s and Polamalu’s extensions figure to be similar: Lowering the 2014 cap number by adding years, but little guaranteed after that.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 5, 2014
The same cannot be said for many of their previous contract restructures.
The two new contracts put the Steelers at approximately $7.17 million over the cap. It is set to reduce by $6.25 million at the start of the league year when they are expected to release offensive tackle Levi Brown. The release or renegotiation of contracts belonging to cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker LaMarr Woodley should be enough to get the Steelers safely under the salary cap by the deadline.
While it would be easy to criticize the Steelers extending the contracts of two veterans who are slipping past their primes—no matter how beloved they are to the organization—their hands were tied. Letting both Polamalu and Miller go this offseason would create difficult holes to fill, especially for a cash-strapped team that won't have the wiggle room to make many (if any) moves during free agency.
The Steelers were able to extend the two contracts at little risk. Comparatively, the cap hits the team may have to eat in 2015 or 2016 will be much smaller, should either be released, and they get to reap the rewards of Polamalu and Miller while they attempt to transition at their respective positions.
The Steelers are thin at both safety and tight end. Free safety Ryan Clark will be an unrestricted free agent next week, and it isn't likely the Steelers will want to bring him back. The Steelers also re-signed safety Will Allen on Wednesday, according to ESPN's Adam Caplan (via Scott Brown), but behind him sits just 2013 fourth-round draft pick Shamarko Thomas as the Steelers' only viable starter.
At tight end, the Steelers possess no other player with the all-around skill set of Miller. There is blocking specialist Matt Spaeth, hybrid fullback David Johnson and marginal pass-catchers Michael Palmer and David Paulson lurking on the depth chart.
Presently, the Steelers simply don't have the players on their roster to adequately replace either Polamalu or Miller. They'd be in a worse situation in 2014 without them, regardless of the pair getting older, a bit slower and a bit less effective.
Miller didn't have a great 2013 season, ranking 51 out of 64 tight ends rated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). However, his greatest asset is his reliability in the passing game, and he didn't disappoint in that area despite missing the first two games of the season and suffering the aftereffects of his massive 2012 knee injury.
Miller caught 58 of 78 passes thrown his way in 2013. His 78.4-percent catch rate was fifth best in the league among tight ends, and the four who caught a higher percentage didn't come close to playing the 916 snaps that Miller did on the year.
Though he had only 593 receiving yards and one touchdown—down from 816 yards and eight scores in 2012—there's no question how important he is to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and to a receiving corps that didn't have much to show for itself in 2013 beyond wideout Antonio Brown.
Polamalu also proved in 2013 that he's still a capable and talented safety, even though he will be turning 33 years old in April. He was Pro Football Focus' fifth-ranked safety for the season, with 69 combined tackles, two sacks, a career-high five forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and 11 passes defensed.
For a safety "past his prime," Polamalu surely redefined what "prime" meant in 2013. Without such a good season, the Steelers would have had no issues releasing him now instead of extending his contract. However, he proved that his value to the Steelers remains high even though his value on the free-agent market could be much lower to other teams.
There's no doubt that the Steelers are more sentimental about their roster veterans than most other teams. They brought back former Steelers Spaeth, William Gay and Plaxico Burress in recent years and held on to Taylor and Clark at least one season too long.
Their predilection for restructuring contracts rather than making the more difficult decision to release veterans has resulted in their bad salary-cap situation. All of the criticism they've received over their roster choices has been warranted and likely also helped them along to disappointing back-to-back 8-8 finishes.
But the Miller and Polamalu contract extensions aren't a symptom of the same problem. Instead, the front office proactively identified two of their biggest issues—salary-cap strain paired with thinness at both safety and tight end—and they found a way to make the situation work for the two veterans and for the team's financial bottom line.
The salaries in Miller and Polamalu's final two years won't put the Steelers in a huge cap bind if they have to make the difficult decision to release either player, and they buy time to draft and groom their replacements. For once, the Steelers have tried to have it both ways with their yearly salary-cap jiu-jitsu and appear to have succeeded.