Cut, Keep or Restructure: Making Call on Pittsburgh Steelers' Worst Contracts
As usual, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have to make some moves to get under the 2015 salary cap. Fortunately, this is just part of the yearly cycle for general manager Kevin Colbert and the rest of the front office.
Joel Corry of CBSSports.com projects the Steelers to have the third-worst cap situation in the NFL. He projects they will be $2.901 million over a predicted cap value of $142 million. That will require Colbert to make some difficult—and not so difficult—roster moves to get under the cap.
Underperforming veterans with high cap values will be the first to undergo the microscope. As valuable as many of these players once were, the Steelers cannot afford players who are not performing on the field.
That could mean Mike Mitchell will be one and done in Pittsburgh. It might also mean it is the end of the line for Troy Polamalu.
Are either of these players—and others—worth keeping around for 2015? Here is a breakdown of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ worst contracts.
2015 Cap Hit: $2.5 million
Cam Thomas signed with the Steelers last offseason to provide depth along the defensive line. With his ability to play defensive end and nose tackle, the plan was for him to take over for Al Woods as a rotational player.
That did not pan out, as Thomas had to play a much bigger role with the defense.
He started nine games and put up 18 tackles and 0.5 sacks playing primarily at defensive end. He was a non-factor along the defensive line and eventually gave way to rookie Stephon Tuitt.
Although the Steelers lack depth at defensive end after prospects Nick Williams and Josh Mauro signed elsewhere, they can afford to move on without Thomas. His production and value to the team does not match his cap hit.
Along with Brett Keisel and Lance Moore, Thomas is a strong candidate as a cap casualty later this offseason. By releasing these three players, the Steelers would save $5 million in cap space, including a $2 million savings from Thomas.
2015 Cap Hit: $6,981,000
Once viewed as an up-and-comer at cornerback, Cortez Allen was awarded with a five-year, $26 million contract this past offseason. However, things have not gone as planned, as Dick LeBeau benched Allen for his poor play.
Allen appeared to be a future starter after the Steelers selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. At 6’1” and 196 pounds, he had excellent size to develop into a No. 1 cornerback. In his second year, he flashed his ability as a playmaker with two interceptions, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
With eight starts in his second season, Allen was well on his way to developing into a full-fledged starter. However, he was an easy target for quarterbacks this year and was unable to bounce back. According to Pro Football Focus (via Joel Corry of CBSSports.com), Allen finished the year as the 105th—out of 110—ranked cornerback.
While many are down on Allen, his problems are not physical—they are mental.
He will enter the 2015 season with a fresh start and the chance to reclaim his spot in the starting lineup. There is still plenty of upside to work with, and he can still be the top cornerback on the Steelers.
Beyond his potential on the field, it is not practical to release Allen based on his cap hit.
Releasing Allen would only save $1,581,000 and leave $5.4 million in dead money. Instead of cutting him, the Steelers could look to restructure his contract to reduce his $6,981,000 cap hit this season.
2015 Cap Hit: $5,666,666
It is blasphemy to think the Steelers could release Heath Miller, right?
The 32-year-old tight end is coming off a strong season in which he produced 761 yards and three touchdowns on 66 receptions. He continues to be a strong blocker and a receiving threat down the middle of the field.
However, as we see from all great players, Miller is beginning to slow down.
With athletic tight ends all over the league, he lumbers down the field and is not a threat to beat any defender with his speed. Never known for his speed, Miller was still able to outrun defenders.
He is also coming off one of the worst performances of his career against the Baltimore Ravens. Uncharacteristic drops were a reminder that Miller is no longer in his prime. Add in a $5,666,666 cap hit, and the Steelers will have to decide if the contract value matches the production.
This will be a quick discussion as even at this cap hit, Miller is still a valuable part of the offense. His 66 receptions were the third most of his career, and his 11.5 yards-per-reception average were 0.2 yards above his career average.
Miller will remain an integral member of the offense in 2015 and is in no danger of being released.
2015 Cap Hit: $4.95 million
For the first time in years, the Steelers broke the bank on a free agent. Mike Mitchell signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the Steelers. He was their most significant free-agent signing since Ryan Clark in 2006.
Although they signed him to a long-term deal, the Steelers left themselves an out. According to Scott Brown of ESPN.com, the Steelers can free themselves from Mitchell after two years with minimal dead money:
Only $5.25 million of Mitchell’s five-year, $25 million contract is guaranteed. His contract is so backloaded that if Mitchell doesn't work out, the Steelers would only have $2.85 million in dead money on their books if they released him after two seasons.
Mitchell didn’t even last a year before the talk of “release” came about. He finished the season with no sacks, no interceptions, only three passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
The Steelers expected much more from the athletic safety.
If they release him this offseason, the Steelers will save $1.15 million in cap space with $3.8 million in dead money. Another possibility is to give Mitchell a post-June 1 designation and save $4 million in cap space while incurring $950,000 in dead money.
While many fans would love to see the Steelers cut Mitchell, it isn’t the best option. It was his first year in Pittsburgh’s difficult defensive system. Besides learning the system, he also had to learn how to play with Troy Polamalu, which is not an easy task.
Besides being new to the system, Mitchell played through the season with a groin injury, per Scott Brown of ESPN.com. Although he was healthy enough to play, there is no way he was at full speed with this type of injury.
With one year in the system and an entire offseason to heal, Mitchell will be in prime position to bounce back next year. The Steelers need playmakers in the secondary, and he has this potential—which is why he will get a second season to prove it.
2015 Cap Hit: $8.25 million
Releasing a player is never an easy task, so imagine the conversion when it comes time to discuss the future of an all-time great. That is the conversion Pittsburgh’s front office will have regarding Troy Polamalu.
One of the greatest players in team history and a future Hall of Famer, the 33-year-old Polamalu carries an $8.25 million cap hit in 2015. That ranks as the fourth highest on the team behind only Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons and Antonio Brown—and just ahead of Maurkice Pouncey.
Not only do those players represent four of the best on the team, but each earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. In essence, all are playing to the level of their cap hit.
That is not the case with Polamalu, who is on his last legs in the NFL.
Once one of the top playmakers in the entire league, Polamalu barely made a dent on the stat sheet in 2014. Although he finished the year with 61 tackles, he was held without a sack or an interception and only had one pass defensed, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble.
Polamalu no longer was flying all over the field disrupting the offense. Instead, he was missing tackles and was a liability in coverage. Twelve seasons, 770 tackles and countless injuries had finally taken their toll.
The Steelers will receive some much-needed cap relief from Polamalu either through his release or through retirement. He will save the team $3.75 million while counting $4.5 million in dead money.
In recent years, the Steelers have released Joey Porter, James Farrior and Hines Ward. If these greats can be cut, then no one is off limits.
Polamalu had a great run in Pittsburgh—and the entire organization, fans and city appreciate what he brought to the field every week—but the time has come for the Steelers to move on from this all-time great.