Steelers Face Tough 2012 Offseason Decisions, But Are Not in “Salary Cap Hell” (Part 2)

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.

This entry was posted in 2011 steelers, Analysis, Cool Stuff, Defensive Line, Draft, Free Agency, Front Office, Offensive Line, Offseason, Steelers History, Wide Recievers. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Jfward86

    I find it interesting that people who haven’t played sports at a high level don’t see the impact starks is making on and off the field. The value of starks in the lockeroom is tremendous. He is a leader on the field and has protected ben in 2 superbowl victories. With starks this year 3-0. Other teams are noticing starks and he currently is in the spotlight of the media. This will lead to bigger offers in free agency from other teams. It would be tough to see him go to another team when ben and the oline need him.

    • Cols714

      We have his replacement, in Gilbert, on the team already. They won’t shell out big bucks for Starks and they probably won’t have too. He’s probably a bit better than average, which on this line makes him their 2nd best lineman behind only Pouncey (who has struggled a bit this year).

    • Mvelo

      I won’t argue that Essex and Scott are as serviceable as Starks is, but, look at the competition Starks has faced since he came in. He’s missed out on Mario Williams, Freeny/Mathis, and Thuggs. You can’t just say, Starks has come in and been lights out when he’s lined up against substandard DE’s and LB’s. Not to say he hasn’t been an upgrade, because he certainly has, but he also hasn’t been spectacular or anything that would warrant a lucrative contract offer from any NFL team.

  • Joel Miller

    Yes, Max Starks missed playing some of the top talents on the Steelers schedule, but do you honestly think he would have fared worse than Scott or Essex?  Incidentally, Jonathan Scott appears to be a RT and is miscast at LT.  Some ruminations for next year’s OL:  You can mark down in stone that only 3 positions are guaranteed on the OL, Pouncey, Gilbert, and Colon.  Max Starks is an enigma for me…personally, I bring him back regardless and worst case he plays behind Colon and Gilbert as the backup tackle.  That brings an interesting possibility: Colon as RG.  He is a little shorter than the average tackle and is a mauler which suits the Steelers RG position.

    With current personnel for next season, I’d like the following lineup: Starks, Legursky, Pouncey, Colon, Gilbert or Gilbert, Legursky, Pouncey, Foster, Colon

    • UWnerd

      While the idea of Colon as a guard has been raised numerous times over his career, it has never happened. It would appear that the Steelers do not see Colon as a guard. Plus with the money they are paying him, he almost has to play tackle.

      • Joel Miller

        While I agree and trust the Steelers coaching staff in most instances…the truth is that the Steelers top 4 lineman for 2012 today are:  Pouncey, Starks, Gilbert, Colon(in no particular order).  Gilbert and Starks are Tackles only and Pouncey is a C.  If they want all 4 of their best guys out there…the ideal move is for Colon to play RG.  I suspect in the end that the Steelers staff will choose to leave Max Starks out of the picture.  What is their problem with him anyways?

        • UWnerd

          I totally agree that those are clearly the most talented linemen on the roster, I’m just not sure you can pay Colon almost 7 million to play guard. But, again, if Gilbert is on a rookie deal, so is Pouncey, and someone besides Kemo is playing LG; maybe it all evens out?

          As to the Steelers and Starks…they need to get over themselves. Starks is the best LT they have.

          • Joel Miller

            We are definitely on the same page here.  I think it must be an attitude thing with Starks.  They traditionally have liked maulers and he is a bit too nice for their taste.  Although he is top notch in pass protection(which I remind them…that is what an LT is for)…

  • Jfward86

    starks has shut down suggs in the pasts. suggs was even quoted in the paper saying he wasn’t sure why starks was let go because he was one of the few tackles to give him trouble in the nfl.  starks has played 3 games in the past year and will keep improving.  if gilbert becomes starting left tackle next year we are in for a long season. he will make a serviceable right tackle.

  • UWnerd

    Doesn’t some of this go away if the Steelers simply part ways with a bunch of veterans? Looks like (if I am understanding everything correctly) the article projects the Steelers to be around 20-30 million over the cap. Well using the link provided in the article, cutting the players listed below, is all that needs to happen:

    A. Smith (5.37 million)
    L. Foote (3.6 million)
    J. Farrior (3.8 million)
    H. Ward (4.6 million)
    B. McFadden (2.67 million)
    C. Kemoeatu (4.4 million)
    W. Colon (6.5 million)

    That is roughly 30 million (simply adding up the contract values) even if one controls for some cap dead money penalties (say 8 million); there is still just over 20 million in savings. Does anyone really believe that any player on that list will be a big-time contributor in 2012?

    While this article series is clearly well thought out and meticulously researched, how is this not a tempest in teapot? I am still not convinced that the Steelers are really in any kind of salary cap trouble; at least not more so than any other veteran NFL team.

    • Joel Miller

      The only players on that list that I see as having a chance of sticking are Willie Colon and Hines Ward.  I would suspect that Hines gets let go barring something unforeseen happening.  Willie Colon is their choice for RT and has played pretty well before 2 pretty freak injuries.  While that may make the Steelers apprehensive about him, I think that his dead money hit would be entirely too much.  Willie Colon will be the starting Right Tackle next season.  I also would point out that this article series is painstakingly saying that the Steelers have tough decisions to make and people to let go, but isn’t in the classic Salary hell that other teams have been caught in recently.

      • Anonymous

        I think Farrior could potentially stick as well.

    • ted

      Some of those numbers are wrong and NFL salary cap math is nowhere near that simple. The Steelers would save less than $13.5 million on their 2012 cap if they cut those seven players before June 1st and replaced them on the roster with undrafted rookie free agents at the 2012 league minimum of $390K. If they waited until after June 1st to cut Ward, Kemo and Colon and replaced them with the cheapest labor possible, then they would save more than $19 million on their 2012 cap, but also add more than $5.7 million in dead money to their 2013 cap just from those three.

      Moreover, by cutting your seven (some of whch I agree with), the Steelers would be left with J. Scott and M. Gilbert as their starting tackles with no other returning players as reserves, and Sylvester starting next to Timmons at ILB, with no other returning players as reserves. Oh, and after you fill out your 53-man roster (even if you go very cheap), tender your RFAs and sign your draft class, you are still going to need to cut a minimum of another $14 million from the current 2012 cap totals of just the other 32 players under contract for next year. Try figuring out how and you will be “believe” it.

      Signing bonuses are prorated over a contract. Thus, if the Steelers cut Kemoeatu after the season to help get in compliance with the cap that begins on March 1st, they will have just under $3.5 million of his original signing bonus count toward his cap figure for 2012. If they wait until after June 1st, then they can split that money, with $1.7+ couning toward his 2012 figure and the same against the 2013 cap. Of course, in either case, you lose a player, and then have to add replacement, with an undrafted rookie FA counting against the cap at $390K. Fortunatley, the Seelers are not going to surround Ben and Troy with a bunch of undrafted rookie free agents, but some talented depth and even starters will be gone and replaced by cheaper labor.

      Colon has four more years left on his deal. His remaining signing bonus applied to the cap each year is $1.2 million. If he is cut before June 1st, then he still counts $4.8 milion against the cap, and that does not account for his replacement. If cut after June 1st, he counts just $1.2 million against 2012 (opening up a lot of space), but another $3.6 million would be counted against the team’s 2013 cap for Colon.

      I will show all these #s on Thursday, but trust me when I say that the Steelers will have to part ways with and/or ask more veterans to take paycuts than ever before, as well as extend and restructure contracts of other players to get under the cap for 2012. They are in a major mess, but it is not hell, because they will decide who to let go, although some decisions will be painful and immediately felt.

      • UWnerd

        With the data presented in your reply, then I am much more on board with the tone and tenor of the articles so far. Perhaps I was just being impatient! I agree that there will be more roster turnover than usual for your typical Steelers off-season, but I still see a lot of high priced veterans on this roster that were hedges against inexperienced players and also a “one last run” type of thing.  For example, with the emergence/experience of some of the young DB’s, Will Allen is likely unnecessary at this point. Arnaz Battle could go. I also do not think that a large infusion of youth would not be a good idea for this team. It may indeed make them “thinner” and more susceptible to injuries, but in the long run it could extend the window for playoff success. It seems like you may agree, with your comment about trading down in the draft.

        How does the Steelers situation compare to other teams around the league? Average? Worse? Far Worse? Better than most? Just curious.

        • ted

          In terms of money already tied up for 2012, the Steelers are in the worst shape by far, something already alluded by several national media. But they are also the only team in the league that did not have an opening-day 2011 position starter who is slated to be an unrestricted free agent next year. In other words, some great players and many more contributors will be gone. But the team’s best players (assuming they can lock up Wallace long-term) will all be back, and they would still receive a first-round pick in return if some team signed Wallace to an offer the Steelers could not match.

          Again, on Thursday I will go through all the possible cuts, and yes, I can promise you nice STs players like Allen and Battle, whose departures will each save over a milion, will be included.

          • UWnerd

            Look forward to it.

          • ted

            One more thing to keep in mind, the Steelers would be under the 2012 cap right now had they kept the franchise tag on Woodley (meaning he would be an upcoming UFA in 2012 if not franchised again) and not re-signed Polamalu to a long-term deal. They would have still had to make some cuts even if those two left, but nowhere near as drastic. Still, while some other re-signings were suspect, I would rather make some major cuts than a few minor cuts if it meant keeping those two around.

  • Cols714

    Per the list below, I think Colon, Farrior and Ward are going to come back next year. If the Steelers win the SB, Ward and Farrior will retire.

    Ward really needs to see less snaps, he’s fallen behind both Brown and Sanders.

  • Pingback: Projecting Salary Cap Cuts and Moves for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers (Part 4) | Steelers Lounge

  • Anonymous

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