Note: This is the second installment of a five-part series being published this week examining the 2012 Steelers, with a focus on the team’s salary-cap challenges. If you have not done so, please read Monday’s detailed synopsis to better comprehend the contents of the article below.
The phrase is being commonly used, but to simply declare that the Steelers are in “salary cap hell” for 2012 would be incorrect after detailed analyses. Per Ian Whetstone of Steel City Insider.Net, the Steelers currently have 39 players under contract for 2012, which along with their dead money totals $141.4 million against their salary cap. That figure is already well over the various estimated NFL team salary-cap ceilings of $123-133 million for next season.
Moreover, the Steelers’ current cap figure for 2012 does not account for lower-level players they will sign to futures contracts after this season. The 51 projected highest earners at any time on their off-season roster count toward the 2012 salary cap, which all teams must be under by the start of the new league year on March 1st and remain so through the Super Bowl. Each player on the 51-man off-season roster applied to the salary cap during the off-season (increases to the full 53 for the regular season, along with any players on IR and teams’ taxi squads) must count at least the 2012 league minimum of $390,000 per player on the active roster to that team’s current cap.
That figure also does not include the eight players on its current roster projected to be restricted- or exclusive-rights free agents (discussed in yesterday’s article in detail) whom Pittsburgh is expected to tender 1-year contracts (which immediately count toward the cap even before they are signed), with receiver Mike Wallace obviously the most important and expensive restricted free agent the franchise wants to retains. The tendering of these eight should add around $11 million to the team’s current cap figure, and that would likely increase by another $500K-$1 million if the Steelers are able to lock up Wallace on a long-term contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Finally, there are 11 players on the Steelers’ 2011 current 53-man active roster or injured-reserve list slated to be unrestricted free agents after 2011, some of whom the Steelers would like to re-sign to modest contracts. In addition, this does not include the Steelers’ 2012 draft class, who collectively will likely count somewhere between $4-$5 million toward the team’s cap next season depending on Pittsburgh’s first-round drafting position and how many players the team ends up selecting. Trading down for extra picks may be a more viable option for the 2012 Steelers in some rounds than in drafts before because they will likely have more realistically available roster spots that could be filled with lower-salaried rookies who offer potential long-term upside.
However, the Steelers’ unrestricted free agents and future 2012 draft picks will mean little after the 2011 season when the front office will quickly have to restructure the contracts of multiple players to significantly lower their 2012 cap hits and determine which veterans to release, most of whom will only be under contract for 2012. For any potential cap casualties signed through 2013 or later (e.g., guard Chris Kemoeatu, receiver Hines Ward), the prorated remainder of their initial signing bonus would entirely apply to the 2012 team cap if they are released before June 1st, which is when Pittsburgh will most need to free cap space.
Thus, it is easy to see why so many Pittsburgh fans, media and national football experts have seen just some of these figures and likely declared that the Steelers’ face “salary-cap hell” in 2012, concluding the 2011 season is their last realistic chance to contend for a title over the next few years. The latter part of that sentence may be true due to the team’s collective age, but the Steelers still have a good shot of fielding a competitive, playoff-caliber 2012 team, which would be unlikely if they truly were in “salary-cap hell.”
Money Will Be Tight, But the Steelers Control All Decisions; Something that Does Not Happen in NFL Salary-Cap Hell
Obviously the Steelers are way over the projected cap and will thus have to make some calculated and cold decisions. However, being significantly over the cap ceiling is just one of four ways that are used to determine if a team is in “salary-cap hell” in my opinion, and a lofty payroll over the projected cap before the new league season is the only one of those (all discussed below) applicable to the 2012 Steelers.
Steelers Have Little Dead Money
One possible way to enter salary cap hell is to be saddled with a great deal of what is referred to as “dead money,” which is money your franchise has already spent but applies to that season’s annual cap for players no longer on your team or maybe even in the NFL. Per great research on Behind the Steel Curtain, the Steelers currently have just $2.4 million in dead money (already paid out) under their 2012 cap. In contrast, the Cowboys have $20,800,000 for 2012 applying to four players who were released by the team within the last two years. Ironically, a majority of the Steelers’ current 2012 dead money ($2 million) counts toward offensive tackle Max Starks, whose July release saved the team $5.14 million off its tight 2011 cap.
Now, you can justifiably criticize that decision, because it left the Steelers without a decent NFL left tackle on its roster to protect their more than $100 million, long-term investment in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But Starks was coming back from off-season neck surgery that forced him to miss the team’s final nine regular-season games and all three playoff contests during the 2010 season. More importantly, that neck injury makes Starks more susceptible to a career-ending injury from one hit. Finally, he had reportedly ballooned to nearly 400 pounds during the lockout, and thus was unlikely to be ready for the Steelers’ first game due to an abbreviated training camp following the lockout.
Proving that release was the correct financial decision, Starks was re-signed for a prorated annual 1-year salary of less than $700,000 to play the last 12 games of this season after he lost nearly 50 pounds. Although rusty and still out of game-shape, Starks has already helped significantly improve the disastrous pass protection at left tackle exhibited by Jonathan Scott and Trai Essex over the first four games.
The magnitude of Starks’ impact is evident in Roethlisberger’s statistics. Roethlisberger led all NFL players with nine total turnovers (5 interceptions, 4 fumbles) through his first four games in 2011 while Scott or Essex protected his blindside. Moreover, he had only three TD passes over those four games, but yet few Pittsburgh fans placed much blame on on their quarterback due to the constant pressure he was under and numerous hard hits he played through that would have sidelined most signal callers. But since Starks returned three games ago, Roethlisberger has one total turnover to go with 9 TD passes, as the Steelers are riding a 3-game win streak.
Now, the Steelers may not be comfortable slotting Marcus Gilbert or Jonathan Scott as their starting left tackle next fall, and thus it would be very prudent to try to re-sign Starks to a 1- or 2-year deal, assuming he can avoid serious injury for the rest of this fall. That may be challenging with their salary-cap situation, but probably not terribly expensive because it is hard to imagine any team signing Starks to a big contract due to injury concerns and since he has never been better than a serviceable left tackle in pass protection, who is also a below-average run blocker with a history of not blocking to the final whistle; (although I guess that is better than spear-blocking defenders who are on the ground well after the final whistle as is Kemoeatu’s wont).
Thus, even if Starks returns to the Steelers in 2012 (which would be wonderful reassurance for the health of Roethlisberger), it will likely be on a modest contact, because that is all the Steelers could afford to potentially pay under the cap (e.g., 2 years for $4.2 million, with a $1.5 million signing bonus, and another $1 million in roster and weight bonuses). Even when combined with the money paid to Starks after re-signing him during the 2011 season and assuming he plays out that entire new hypothetical contract, the total amount paid to Starks for the next three seasons (2011-13) following his release would still be less than the overall amount the Steelers saved just on their 2011 cap by releasing Starks before this fall.
However, it should be noted that the Steelers’ dead money total for 2012 will rise considerably after they are forced to release several veterans by March 1st to be under the salary cap at the start of the new league season. But that figure will still likely not come close to approaching the money the Cowboys already have allocated for four players no longer on their roster. Holding lots of dead money places teams in real salary-cap hell before they even begin trying to manage their current rosters.
None of the Steelers’ Top Earners Are Busts
A third route to salary cap hell is to pay a plethora of money to players on your roster who are riding the bench and/or are not very good. While some are probably a little overpaid, all of the players among the Steelers’ current top nine salary-cap hits for next year (Roethlisberger, OLB LaMarr Woodley, ILB Lawrence Timmons, OLB James Harrison, S Troy Polamalu, NT Casey Hampton, CB Ike Taylor, TE Heath Miller, OT Willie Colon) are at least above-average performers at their respective NFL positions when healthy. Unfortunately not all of those nine will return to Pittsburgh next fall as Hampton is a likely cap casuality. Nevertheless, the Steelers are not paying huge money to any poor-performing players the way most teams are for multiple first-round busts, something the Steelers almost never do primarily due to the indisputable track record of Kevin Colbert as the best first-round drafter among NFL executives since he began directing Pittsburgh’s personnel decisions in 2000.
Steelers Have No Unrestricted Free-Agency Fears For 2012
The final form of salary cap hell is to be over or not far under the cap limit, and also have some of your best young players slated for unrestricted free agency, meaning their original teams can apply the franchise tag to one of those players (assuming it is not already being used on another player on the team’s roster) to pay an inflated figure on a 1-year base salary that likely causes more salary-cap problems for that fall and may irritate that player, thus hurting long-term negotiations. The other option is to potentially enter fierce bidding wars on the uncontrollable and often unpredictable open market that could cause even more financial difficulty in both the short- and long-terms to retain highly-coveted players, or risk watching some of your best players leave without any compensation in return.
That will not happen to the 2012 Steelers, who control their roster outlook for the most part. None of the Steelers’ 22-opening day starters from this fall are currently slated to be unrestricted free agents in 2012, the only team in the NFL with that distinction. The team’s top unrestricted free agents for 2012 currently include Starks (who was unemployed and on the treadmill a few weeks ago), 35-year-old backup nose tackle Chris Hoke and cornerback William Gay, who has moved into a starting role and is playing well (before the Patriots game) but has never received much of any outside interest either as an unrestricted free agent before this season or as a restricted free agent after being a regular starting cornerback in 2009.
Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Polamalu, and young, standout linebackers Woodley and Timmons were all signed to lucrative long-term extensions before this fall, eradicating any chance of any of them leaving before 2012. As noted in the previous article, superstar receiver Mike Wallace is slated to be a restricted free agent, but the Steelers will likely try to lock him up to a long-term deal shortly after the 2011 season or (before a deal is reached) at least try to retain his services by tendering him an offer at the highest level (an estimated $3.5 million for 2012) that would require another team to give up a valuable first-round pick to the Steelers if they did not match the contract.
There are other teams that would no doubt like to have the Steelers’ roster of returning players under contract through at least 2012 even with their current 2012 salary cap figures that collectively far exceed the projected team salary-cap ceiling, especially since management gets to mostly determine which players return or do not. After all, assuming all are healthy, Pittsburgh will have back the NFL’s best defensive player in Polamalu, best pass rusher in Harrison, and most clutch, fourth-quarter quarterback in Roethlisberger.
Nevertheless, depending on the cap limits yet to be determined and their other personnel moves, the Steelers will still need to shave $20-40 million from its 2012 current payroll. Doing so will not be easy and could result in a much worse team for 2012, and/or a lot of discontent in the locker room and amongst fans. Tomorrow we will examine the prudent and imprudent decisions that placed the Steelers’ front office and coaching staff in such a challenging cap position entering the 2012 season.