Projecting Salary Cap Cuts and Moves for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers (Part 4)

Note 1: This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on the Steelers’ 2012 salary-cap dilemmas that are more pronounced than ever before and will result in some difficult cuts. If you have not done so, please read the first article that explained the situation in-depth, the second detailed why the Steelers are still not in “salary-cap hell,” even though that phrase will be commonly heard before the start of the 2012 season, while the third examined both the correct and questionable moves made by Pittsburgh that placed them in this quandary.

Note 2: It should be noted that I am not a salary-cap expert and there is almost certainly some inaccurate info below in terms of projected salaries already in place for 2012, although I believe the majority is either correct or close to accurate. Most of my numbers came from the postings of Steelers’ salary-cap guru Ian Whetstone, who serves as the capologist for Steel City Insider.Net. However, a very handy resource is this mostly-accurate 2012 salaries table at Steelers Depot, although it has not been updated to include safety Troy Polamalu’s 4-year extension signed just before the 2011 season (resulting in roughly a $6.5 million base salary for 2012 and $8.9 cap total for the year), or the in-season 2011 restructure and corresponding 1-year extension of defensive end Aaron Smith’s contract that enabled the Steelers to bring in offensive tackle Max Starks on a 1-year contract after week No. 4 this fall.

Note 3: At this point no one knows what the NFL salary cap will be in 2012. The 2011 salary cap (excluding benefits) was set at a maximum of $120.5 million per team. Furthermore, each franchise was allowed to use three exceptions against future caps for up to $3 million total to re-sign its own veterans. The latter figure drops to $1.5 million for 2012, with the cap likely rising gradually on an annual basis as it has historically. Current estimates have overall team caps for 2012, including the exceptions, ranging from $122-133. Pittsburgh fans must root for any deals that increase overall league revenue.

For purposes of this exercise, I will make an optimistic (but certainly not unrealistic) projection that the team salary cap ceilings for 2012 will increase to $128 million, with each franchise also able to use the $1.5 million in exceptions against future team annual caps to re-sign its own veteran free agents. However, per Whetstone on Steel City Insider, following the restructure and extension of Smith in early October the Steelers had “exactly 39 players under contract for 2012, at a total cap cost (including dead money) of about $141.4 million.” But with Smith now on injured reserve, whichever player ends the season on the Steelers’ roster as his replacement (initially DE Corbin Bryant, now LB Mortty Ivy due to injuries, but expected to be Bryant again for more than six games) will likely add another $465,000 to that figure. Thus, rounding to the nearest half-figure, the Steelers now currently have a projected 40 players under contract for 2012 at a total cap cost of around $141.85 million.

Moreover, that figure does not include the Steelers’ eight restricted (including receiver Mike Wallace) or exclusive-rights free agents who they are likely to tender offers following the 2011 season, or any of their 11 veteran players slated to be unrestricted free agents (some of whom they would like back), or their 2012 draft class. NFL teams must be in compliance with the new salary cap figure by the start of the new league season, which is generally on March 1st each year, and then have their collective 2012 salaries remain under the cap through the end of the season. For the offseason, a team’s 51 highest-paid players count against the cap at all times, with the lowest paid roster longshots signed as free agents off the street after the season usually counting $390,000 per player against the cap if any fall under a team’s top 51 salaries.

Finally, Omar Khan, the Steelers’ chief negotiator and salary-cap expert is a master at both getting the maximum amount of talent under the salary cap for each season without mortgaging the team’s future chances to win. The problem for the Steelers is that the NFL has a hard cap with very few areas that have any exceptions. Thus, regardless of how brilliant Khan’s skills are, getting under the cap is going to be extremely challenging and painful for the 2012 Steelers, since the team justifiably focused its payrolls over the last three years on a “win-now” philosophy. Regardless, the Steelers can still be a contender in 2012 so long as Polamalu and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remain healthy, but many more young, unproven players may make next year’s roster than ever before.

Accordingly, here goes my early attempt to show ways the Steelers might try to get under the 2012 cap, which will also exhibit just how difficult that process is going to be this offseason. Next Tuesday’s final part of this series will unveil the Steelers Lounge initial 2012 Pittsburgh mock draft and an absurdly early 53-man projected roster. To make things easier to follow, I will slightly round up or down to whole numbers in many cases.

This Is Not Going to Be Easy
First, get three faulty notions out of your head, because (A) the Steelers’ 2012 cap problems will not work itself out like years past; (B) the team cannot just simply cut some aging players signed through 2012 to get under the cap; and (C) even though it would go against their philosophy and would be naïve with their still solid veteran core of players, the Steelers could not theoretically sacrifice the 2012 season just to clear cap space for future years.

The Steelers’ salary-cap dilemmas for 2012 are too challenging and complex for any of those solutions due to guaranteed money already counting against their cap. Instead, the Steelers will almost certainly have to restructure and add years to the contract of Roethlisberger to get under the 2012 salary cap, which will be discussed in detail letter.

The Steelers should finish 2011 with 40 players under contract, who account for roughly $141.85 million on its 2012 payroll (including some dead money for players no longer on the roster).

They will likely increase those figures to 48 players under contract for around $152.85 million by tendering 1-year contract offers to restricted- (WR Wallace, TE/FB D.J. Johnson, OG Ramon Foster, OG-C Doug Legursky, S Ryan Mundy and CB Keenan Lewis) and exclusive-rights free agents (RB Isaac Redman and NT Steve McLendon). All restricted free agents besides Wallace will likely receive lower tenders that should be around $1.25 million per player, with the Steelers able to retain rights to Redman and McLendon at around $600K for 2012, since neither can be eligible for unrestricted free agency before 2014 unless released.

Steelers Will Extend Wallace Early
If they are unable to first work out a long-term contract extension, the Steelers will tender Wallace at the highest level for a restricted free agent, which would mean a 2012 salary of roughly $3.5 million for him to remain in Pittsburgh, or the Steelers would receive a first-round draft pick from any other team that signed him to a contract offer that the Steelers do not match. But as discussed in the first article of this series, Wallace is simply too good to take the risk of losing, so I am projecting the Pittsburgh front office to immediately make signing him to a long-term deal the franchise’s top off-season priority.

For now, though, I will optimistically project that Wallace is extended after the season on the hypothetical contract I laid out in the first article of this series (5-year contract for $45.2 million with a guaranteed $18 million signing bonus. Base salaries would be $700,000 in 2012, $4.6 million in 2013, $4.9 million in 2014, $5.3 million for 2015 and $5.8 million in 2016. The rest of the money would come from potential (non-guaranteed) but likely-to-be earned roster bonuses of $1.5 million for each the 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons, and a $1.4 million bonus in 2016.

This would increase Wallace’s 2012 cap figure roughly $800K to $4.3 million due to the annual prorated portion from the signing bonus of $3.6 million applicable immediately.

However, the Steelers would make up some of that difference and improve long-term depth if they sign Legursky and Mundy to long-term extensions. Legursky is a nice reserve guard/center who the Steelers’ coaches really like and can be a serviceable starting guard at times, although he will always have match-up problems against bigger, stronger defensive tackles. Although not a great NFL athlete, Mundy is a decent dimeback and serviceable No. 3 safety in Pittsburgh’s scheme, who could also provide a bridge or back-up plan as the Steelers hope to eventually transition from Ryan Clark as the starting free safety to a prospect likely drafted in 2012.

Hypothetically, let’s say Legursky’s 2012 tender offer is ripped up and he is signed to a 4-year extension that results in lowering his cap hit to $950K for 2012. While his base salary would be lower, this deal could be structured in a way that Legursky pockets good money immediately, provides long-term security for what had been a fringe NFL player when he entered the league, and also enables him a strong possibility to earn the full amount. He would also stay near his West Virginia roots, and continue playing for a franchise he loves that is making a long-term commitment to him.

Those seems like the best bets for moderate extensions, since the Steelers are always seemingly trying to replace Foster at right guard; they should be trying to replace Johnson with a better lead blocker despite his versatility, and Lewis’ agent probably believes his client would be best served playing out 2012 as a possible first-time starter a season before entering unrestricted free agency than signing an extension at a significant hometown discount. However, that could change if the Steelers end up having more cap space later in the summer, enabling them the chance to make Lewis a better financial offer.

Legursky’s hypothetical extension: 4 years (2012-15) for $4.9 million, including a $1 million signing bonus, and base salaries of $700K in 2012, $750K in 2013, $1.05 million in 2014 and $1.4 million in 2015, resulting in a $950K cap hit for 2012.

Mundy would likely not receive much more than the minimum 2012 salary for players with 4-6 years experience of $700K from another franchise if he were not tendered by Pittsburgh, and (although less likely) could be in danger of not making another final 53-man roster. Mundy’s hypothetical extension: 3 years for $3.2 million with a $750K signing bonus, and base salaries of $700K in 2012, $715 in 2013 and $1.035 million in 2014, resulting in lowering his cap figure to $950K in 2012.

The Steelers will then have 48 players under contract or tendered for 2012 and Wallace locked up long-term for a total of around $153.15 million, excluding benefits. Add in one hypothetical player with one accrued NFL season signed to a futures contract ($465K) and two more at the league minimum ($390K) and the Steelers’ offseason 51-player cap total rises to a little more than $154.6 million. The Steelers would thus have to trim $26.6 million from their projected payroll before March 1st.

Bloody February
Pittsburgh could cut an estimated $20.83 million off that cap figure by releasing eight veterans listed below, all of whom are only signed through 2012. However, by doing so they would create $5.9 million of dead money on their cap, giving them a total of $8.3 million, which is far less than the $20.8 million the Cowboys already have allotted in dead money for just four departed players against their 2012 cap, but would still be much more wasteful than normal for the Steelers.  However, this money has already been paid to those players, and thus is already part of the team’s 2012 cap figure and cannot be adjusted regardless of each player’s status with Pittsburgh.

Moreover, the cap totals saved by theoretically releasing those eight would still have to be replaced by eight players (likely on futures contracts at the minimum contract) taking their spots on the 51-player off-season payroll, which would drop the cap relief from releasing those eight before March 1st to just over $17.7 million, meaning the team would still need to free up an additional $8.9 million from its 2012 payroll before March 1st even if all eight are released.

Cutting those eight would also leave the Steelers with Stevenson Sylvester starting next to Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker with no other returning middle linebackers from the current active roster, and right tackle Willie Colon (who has played one regular-season game over the last two years) and left tackle Marcus Gilbert (a rookie who has only started at right tackle) as the unchallenged starting offensive tackles, with no other tackles with NFL game experience on the roster.

The Steelers would be unwise to leave such potential holes on their roster, particularly at the mike linebacker spot, which calls out signals in Dick LeBeau’s complex defense. Fortunately, the Steelers have negotiating leverage at both positions for the upcoming offseason between Larry Foote and James Farrior at inside linebacker, and Starks (who will be an unrestricted free agent) and Jonathan Scott at offensive tackle.

Let’s examine each of those eight players signed through 2012, and the logic and risks of cutting each.

Signed Through 2012:
The Easy Cuts:

CB Bryant McFadden (Cap savings of $2.5 million; 2012 Cap hit of $167K already paid out remains regardless): Due to a constant array of lingering injuries and an inability to play man coverage, McFadden is at best the Steelers’ No. 5 cornerback right now (since rookie Cortez Allen is clearly ahead of him on the depth chart), with at least three of those players slated to return in 2012. If he has not already done so, rookie Curtis Brown will likely surpass him as well before the end of this fall. With such little dead money created by his release and the young players in front of him, this will be the easiest cut among the many difficult decisions Pittsburgh must make before 2012.

DE Aaron Smith (Cap savings of $2.11 million; 2012 Cap hit of $875K already paid out remains regardless): This emotionally-challenging potential cut has been made a non-issue due to the likely retirement of Smith, who is now on the season-ending injured-reserve list for the fourth time in the last five years. The $875K in dead money remains on the Steelers’ 2012 total regardless. However, that money (created by an in-season restructure and extension) enabled the Steelers to bring in Starks this fall, so it was well-spent.

WR Arnaz Battle (Cap savings of $1.038 million; 2012 Cap hit of $312K already paid out remains regardless): Battle is a fine special-teams player on multiple units, although moving kickoffs up to the 35-yard-line made special teams less important. Moreover, he is the team’s sixth receiver and is way too costly for such a tight cap.

S Will Allen (Cap savings of $1.28 million; 2012 Cap hit of $325K already paid out remains regardless): Allen is an outstanding special-teams player, although once again that means less now. However, Clark was close to inking with Miami in free agency when Allen signed with the Steelers. Thus, Allen was signed to be a possible starter and at worse an experienced No. 3 safety who plays in the dime. Instead, he has been the team’s No. 4 safety, with the younger and cheaper Mundy entrenched as the top reserve at both spots since 2010. Regardless, please remember that Allen and Battle were signed after a 2009 season when a loaded and defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh team finished 9-7 and barely missed out on the postseason, in large part due to having among the statistically worst kick-off coverage units in NFL history (yielded 5 TDs). But the additions of Allen and Battle helped shore up that weakness for last year’s Super Bowl runner-up, so they were solid signees at the time who thus should be remembered fondly by Pittsburgh fans.

The Ones You Want Back But Some Will Not Return:

NT Casey Hampton (Cap savings of $5.89 million; 2012 Cap hit of $2.17 already paid out remains regardless): The Steelers would love to have Hampton return and would likely be willing to extend him through 2013. The 34-year-old Hampton is still probably an above-average nose tackle, but is definitely no longer elite at his position. However, in addition to the $2.17 million already accounted for Hampton from the signing bonus of the contract he signed in 2010, the Steelers simply cannot pay more than a combined total of around $1.8-2 million (annual base and new bonus combined) for Hampton on their 2012 cap and even that would be extremely difficult for the team to fit. Plus, considering his age, Pittsburgh is also unlikely to extend Hampton beyond an extra season, two at the absolute most.

With only two NFL starting nose tackles slated to be unrestricted free agents in 2012 and neither as good as Hampton, he would likely command at least more than twice what the Steelers can offer on the open-market. The Steelers slapped the franchise tag on Hampton before 2010, resulting in their 2001 first-round pick agreeing to a long-term extension for clearly less than he would have received on the open market that offseason. Nevertheless, Hampton has repeatedly said he would love to play his entire career in Pittsburgh. The organization and most of its fanbase would love that as well, but I cannot project him to agree to such a lofty paycut compared to what he could still get from other teams. Sadly, if Hampton is released and hits free agency, he is likely gone. Moreover, the Steelers almost have to release him before March 1st to get under the cap for the new league year. Due to a very thin 2012 group of potential draft prospects at nose tackle, the Steelers may elect to go with McLendon and a then-36-year-old Chris Hoke (who would be re-signed for the veteran’s minimum of $925K for 2012) at nose tackle, even though neither is the classic, wide-body run-stuffer desired to play that spot in the 3-4.

ILB James Farrior (Cap savings of $2.825 million; 2012 Cap hit of $1 million already paid out remains regardless): Farrior is arguably the greatest veteran free-agent signing in franchise history. While he remains the Steelers’ second best inside linebacker behind Timmons, as well as their defensive captain, signal caller and smartest player, Farrior’s age is showing more than ever before as he looks a step slower in pursuit and coverage, and is currently sidelined for a month with a calf injury. More important, Farrior will turn 37 before the playoffs begin this season. Thus, he is a strong candidate for retirement after 2011. However, Farrior likely would return for another season if asked and would almost certainly agree to a significant paycut to do so. But the Steelers may prefer to instead to bring back another veteran but younger inside linebacker.

ILB Larry Foote (Cap savings of $3 million; 2012 Cap hit of $600K already paid out remains regardless): Foote is an overpaid No. 3 inside linebacker, although he is earning his salary more this fall due to rampant injuries in the Steelers’ linebacking corps. However, following his one season with the Lions, Foote was re-signed before 2010 to eventually succeed his good friend, Farrior, and that is likely still the Steelers’ plan. Foote, though, has to reduce his cap figure significantly for 2012. Since he likely could not start for any other team in 2012 and the Steelers can always turn to Farrior for at least one more season, Foote will likely oblige, so long as the deal is beneficial for both sides, in that it includes an extension.

The hypothetical restructure and extension for Foote rips up his $3 million base contract for 2012 (although the $600K in prorated bonus money from that contract still counts). He re-signs a 3-year extension through 2013 for $6.2 million that includes a $900K signing bonus and base contracts of $925K for 2012, $1.75 million for 2013 and $2.6 million for 2014. In addition to the $600K from the previous signing bonus, the new deal reduces Foote’s 2012 cap hit from $3 million to $1.225 million, giving the Steelers’ an experienced starting mike linebacker to run LeBeau’s defense. Foote has always been a locker-room leader and a cerebral football player, so he seems like a perfect candidate to replace Farrior as the defensive signal caller and captain. Foote is an instinctual player adept at stopping the interior run, but more of a liability in pass coverage than Farrior.

OT Jonathan Scott (Cap savings of $2.2 million; 2012 Cap hit of $500K already paid out remains regardless): Scott would be a decent No. 3 tackle and gameday reserve for the Steelers, which is essentially the type of money he is being paid in 2011, with a base salary of $800K. However, the Steelers would much rather bring back Starks as a starting left tackle, particularly since the team cannot depend on a starting offensive tackle duo of Gilbert (who has never started at left tackle in the NFL) and right tackle Colon, who is trying to come back from missing two consecutive seasons. When is the last time you saw a player come back from missing nearly all of two straight seasons at all, let alone do so and play well? Regardless, Starks may be out of the Steelers’ price range in free agency and thus Scott may well return, since he would cost less. Scott, too, probably would not mind seeing what type of interest he can generate on the open market, although the opportunity to return to Pittsburgh, which saved his career, and the chance to keep playing for his offensive line coach, Sean Kugler, who wanted Scott signed when he seemingly had no other teams interested, would both be enticing. Plus, knowing that he could easily be a starter again quickly in Pittsburgh due to the uncertainty of Colon and Gilbert, all combine to make the versatile but athletically-limited Scott a strong bet to return if Starks is not re-signed. But Scott is likely to be released before March 1st regardless to free up cap space.

Among the veterans signed beyond 2012, the only one who could feasibly be cut before June 1st (when all of that prorated remaining portion of the contract’s signing bonus would apply to 2012) to aid the 2012 cap is offensive team captain and receiver Hines Ward, who is slated to earn $4.61 million against the 2012 cap. If he were cut before June 1st, the Steelers would add $1.22 million in dead money against the cap but clear up $3.39 million in space. If Ward were cut after June 1st, the Steelers could split the remaining $1.22 million from his signing bonus evenly among the 2012 and 2013 caps, which would free up $4 million in cap room for 2012.

However, I cannot even fathom the notion of Hines Ward finishing his brilliant career with another franchise, although that seems far more plausible than the Steelers being able to pay him his scheduled base salary of $4 million for 2012 due to their cap problems.

I may be biased and lacking objectivity in this one case, since Ward is my favorite football player of all time (although Jack Lambert will always be my childhood idol and favorite Steeler), in part because I have a connection to Ward dating back before we both attended the University of Georgia at the same time in the 1990s. Thus, I am going to slot Ward among the players below who restructure their contracts, assuming/hoping he is willing to do so to stay with Pittsburgh for the remainder of his career.

Restructures Have to Be Done Early Next Year

After making the projected moves discussed earlier regarding restricted free agents (highlighted by the contract extension for Wallace), the Steelers release the seven players above who are signed through 2012 before March 1st, along with restructuring and extending Foote’s contract that significantly lowers his 2012 cap hit. Those seven cuts and Foote’s restructuring free up $19.605 million under the upcoming 2012 cap.

However, the seven would temporarily be replaced on the team’s 51-player payroll for the 2012 cap with players signed to futures contracts after the season, all accounting for $390K per player on the cap. Thus, the actual savings from those deals takes off $16.875 million from the team’s payroll, but also increases dead money for 2012 to $7.7 million.

At that point, though, the Steelers would still be over the cap by $9.725 million, and remember that does not include adding back any of their unrestricted free agents (although they will get to use the $1.5 million in exceptions) or signing their 2012 draft picks. But none of those will happen before March 1st, and the Steelers still need to trim at least $11 million to not only get under the cap, but also to enable the franchise to re-sign a few modestly-priced but important free agents.

The only way then to get under the cap is to restructure several contracts and do so quickly to help keep the core together of a great team that will aspire to compete for another title in 2012.

Roethlisberger’s Contract Must Be Restructured and Extended

Due to his restructuring to help get the Steelers in salary-cap compliance for 2011, Steelers Depot projects Roethlisberger’s cap charge at $16,920,000 next year, although that figure can be reduced drastically, since his base salary and specific 2012 bonuses account for a reported $11.6 million, although I am not sure if that is the exact figure.

Regardless, a quick glance at the Steelers’ salaries for 2012 shows that Roethlisberger is the most likely player asked to restructure for 2012. However, by just converting a large portion of his 2012 salary into a signing bonus spread out over the remaining four years of his contract (2012-15) does not provide as much relief as needed and makes his cap figures for the last three years of his deal way too high. That means if Roethlisberger had a career-ending injury during a season, the Steelers would not only have to replace their franchise quarterback the next season, but would also have to gut their roster just to get under the cap.

Thus, it is a time for an extension. The 29-year-old Roethlisberger is entering his prime. Although he will likely never put up consistently great statistics like Tom Brady or Drew Brees, he has proven himself as the best fourth-quarter signal caller in the league and one whose greatest quality is a penchant for winning.

However, his current contract goes through his 12th season, and Roethlisberger has already taken more hard hits than most players could survive and seemingly keeps overcoming injuries to every body part, particularly his feet. How long can he hold up? And will he be a top-level quarterback in 2016 and beyond? Moreover, in addition to his size and instincts, his greatest assets are his mobility and nimbleness, which enable him to extend plays and avoid more hits. What would happen to his performances if that agility declines due to injury and age, because his accuracy varies by games and within games far more so than some other elite quarterbacks like Brady and Peyton Manning?

Regardless, the salary-cap situation makes restructuring and extending Roethlisberger a priority. Hypothetically, the Steelers could add two years to Roethlisberger’s contract through 2017. They could take $9.2 million out of his 2012 contract, with $7.8 million converted into an immediate signing bonus that will be prorated against the cap for the remaining six years on his deal (2012-17). The remaining $1.4 million would be added to future contracts.

Ryan Tollner, who is Roethlisberger’s agent, may well insist that portion of the restructure is also guaranteed, so the entire $9.2 million could just be turned into a signing bonus. But that provides less immediate salary-cap relief and creates more problems in 2013-2014.

Roethlisberger said as a rookie that his goal is to be considered the best quarterback to play in the NFL. While that is not going to happen, he still has decent chance of being the league’s greatest winner among quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era. His best chance of doing so, though, is remaining in Pittsburgh for the long-haul, and helping his team assemble its best roster possible each season. He could also use the justified positive PR he would receive by not insisting that 100 percent of the re-structured money was guaranteed.

More important, the Steelers could privately convey (although not promise) that they are hoping to free up enough cap space to attempt to re-sign Starks, one of Roethlisberger’s good friends and – more important – the only player on the current roster that he justifiably trusts to protect his health from the blind side. This hypothetical Roethlisberger restructure and extension through 2017 would provide the Steelers $7.9 million in 2012 cap relief, meaning they would still need to trim $1.825 million just to get under the cap before March 1st.

Hines Ward Will Have a Choice…
There is simply no way the Steelers can afford a $4.61 million cap hit in 2012 for what will by that time be a 36-year-old Ward to serve as the team’s fourth best receiving threat. However, in addition to his leadership and competitiveness, Ward is still valuable for his ability to get open in the middle of zones and hold on to catches after taking hard hits, as well as essentially serving as an H-back who excels in run-blocking after going in motion.

But as previously noted, if they cut Ward before June 1st, the Steelers would add $1.22 million in dead money against the cap but clear up $3.39 million in space. If Ward were cut after June 1st, the Steelers could split the remaining $1.22 million from his signing bonus evenly among the 2012 and 2013 caps, thus freeing up $4 million for 2012.

Despite the child-like unbriddled enthusiasm he exhibts on the field, Ward is a consummate professional who regularly says “it’s a business.” Thus, the Steelers will present him with a business decision, while letting him know just how important he remains to the team and the long-term financial advantages of spending his entire career with the franchise whose fanbase is the most loyal of any in the NFL. For example, Pittsburgh fans showed up for a huge rally to cheer his final performance on Dancing With the Stars.

At this point, they will not touch his 2013 projected salary. But to remain with the team, Ward must significantly reduce his base salary from $4 million in 2012. Pittsburgh fans obviously remember Ward’s very-public contract dispute and holdout before 2005. However, that was when he was a much younger and poorer man who had been greatly underpaid compared to his production up to that point.

Ward’s greatness is largely due to his unyielding belief in his own abilities and desire to prove doubters wrong. He obviously sees that the Steelers have a lot of young talent at receiver and may wrongly believe that he could still be an impact player with another franchise. While several teams would love to add Ward to their roster and locker room, none are going to pay much more than the veteran’s minimum. Outside of Jerry Rice with the Raiders, what receivers in the past 25 years have gone to a new franchise well into their 30s and played well?

Moreover, this does not have to be a straight paycut. The front office can appeal to Ward’s competitiveness by transferring most of his 2012 base salary into not-likely-to-be-earned (NLTBE) incentives, but ones that he could theoretically meet, with any of those earned applying to the team’s 2013 cap (e.g., Steelers win Super Bowl, 90 receptions, 1,200 receiving yards, 10 TDs, etc.). Now, unless Master P is your agent, a contract based largely on NLTBE bonuses is not a good deal. But those listed are better options than some incentives (e.g., first-team all-pro) and the Steelers could throw in a small signing bonus to spread out over the remaining two years of his deal.

Although unlikely, there is also the possibility that Ward retires after 2011, a scenario that becomes more plausible if the Steelers win their seventh Super Bowl championship. For now, though, let’s say Ward’s restructure includes a $350K signing bonus ($175K against each of the team’s caps for 2012 and 2013), but reduces his 2012 base salary to $1 million, with some or most of the differences converted into NLTBE bonuses. The $610K remaining prorated portion of his signing bonus from his pre-2009 extension will count against the team’s cap regardless of what transpires. However, this hypothetical deal frees up another $2.825 million for the Steelers’ 2012 payroll. Now, finally, the Steelers are under the cap, but only have $1 million (plus the $1.5 million for three exceptions) to re-sign their own veteran free agents, making it unlikely they could re-sign Starks, which should be their top priority in free agency.

What to Do with Harrison?
The Steelers will still need to free up more cap room to bring back some key veterans and once again compete for a title in 2012. There are not many other options for restructures. They will not touch the contract of Colon, since he will likely be released before 2013 if he does not return to play well and finish the season in 2012. Colon could also theoretically be cut after June 1st in 2012, but that is less likely, because doing so would apply $3.6 million in dead money in 2013 and leave the Steelers again thin on the offensive line for 2012. Despite their huge cap figures, the 2012 base salaries for LaMarr Woodley and Timmons are relatively low, and the team does not need to inflate their already huge cap hits even more for ensuing years.

Two possibilities for restructures are the team’s best defensive backs, Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor. In both cases, parts of their 2012 base salary could be converted into an immediate signing bonus prorated over the remainder of their deals, which end in 2014. Those are possibilities to help a little in the short-term, but all of that money would be guaranteed and thus create more salary-cap problems for upcoming years.

A better option might be to restructure outside linebacker James Harrison for a second consecutive season with a deal that could be mutually beneficial to both parties. When healthy, the 33-year-old Harrison is the Steelers’ second best player behind only Polamalu. However, he has not been healthy yet this fall, beginning the season out of shape and a step slower due to off-season back surgery, and now sidelined with a broken orbital bone.

Cutting Harrison before June 1st next summer is almost certainly not going to happen, since it would result in nearly a $12.35 million cap hit for 2012, which is far greater than his already high cap hit for 2012 of roughly $9.4 million. Still unlikely but more possible would be releasing him after June 1st. That would save nearly $3.5 million on the Steelers’ 2012 cap, but literally create cap hell for 2013, generating more than $8 million in dead money applied to the Steeelers’ ceiling for just Harrison.

Thus, the Steelers have little leverage in asking Harrison to essentially take a paycut, but it would also be unwise to simply create more cap problems in future years by equally transferring part of his base salary for 2012 into a prorated signing bonus.

However, both could be part of a theoretical restructure. For example, the Steelers could convert $2.1 million of Harrison’s 2012 base salary into a signing bonus prorated over the last three years of his deal, which would free up $1.4 million in 2012 cap space. This would guarantee that Harrison would not be cut after June 1st in 2012 and make it considerably more likely that he would be on the team in 2013 than his current odds, which are probably just below 50 percent at this time due to his age (will turn 35 before the 2013 season) and contract. Further, the Steelers could convert more of his 2012 salary into a reporting bonus applicable to just that season, which would mean more immediate, guaranteed money for Harrison. In return Harrison would allow another $1.1 million of his 2012 base salary to be transferred into his 2014 contract, knowing that he is unlikely to ever receive that cash unless he returns to form as one of the dominant pass rushers in the league again.

But unless Harrison comes back healthy and plays well this fall, and the Steelers are convinced that his back problems will not become a prolonged, lingering issue, a Harrison restructure may be simply too risky for the franchise at this point.

However, Harrison is not just a classic edge rusher, most of whom are players whose careers are usually finished after losing speed. Instead, he is stout against the run, excellent in coverage (which he could increasingly do with Woodley on the other side), and even has the potential and physical build (6-feet, 245 pounds) to eventually move to inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense at the end of his career, although that would obviously need to be at a significantly-reduced salary.

Moreover, Jason Worilds, a second-round pick in 2010, has not come close to showing that he could replace Harrison in the starting lineup any time soon, since he is always injured and does not earn playing time when healthy, assuming Woodley and Harrison are also active.

While I would certainly not bet on this scenario at this point, let’s go ahead and be optimistic by predicting that Harrison will return this fall, play well (although not at his previous level) and not require off-season surgery. Thus, the two sides agree on the mutually-beneficial restructure listed above, which opens up another $2.5 million in cap space for the 2012 Steelers.

Now, with $3.5 million in cap space and the $1.5 million in exceptions, the Steelers not only can focus on re-signing Starks in free agency (something that is less likely without a Harrison restructure), but can also hope to re-sign Hampton, and possibly sign restricted free agent Lewis to an extension, a year before he is slated to become an unrestricted free agent and before his first season as a starter. If not, they could re-sign valuable and versatile cornerback William Gay with this extra cap room created by the three restructures and seven releases.

Free Agency Before the Draft
The re-signing of Starks has literally saved the Steelers’ 2011 season, since the team’s offensive line was horrific for the first four games and in complete shambles before Starks solidified the ultra-important left tackle spot by returning immediately as a starter in week No. 5. Now, it is true that Starks has benefited by facing far less potent pass-rushing teams than the Steelers faced in their first four weeks. He should struggle more this week against Ravens’ Pro-Bowler Terrell Suggs, although still nowhere near to the level of Jonathan Scott’s problem with Suggs in all three of their matchups over the past two seasons, highlighted by Suggs’ three sacks of Roethlisberger in the season-opener this fall.

While he will only turn 30 in January, most teams will not be interested in signing Starks as a free agent due to his neck injury that caused him to miss most of 2010 that makes him more susceptible to sustaining a career-ending injury. Moreover, he is a below-average run-blocker at left tackle and the majority of franchises already have a lot of money invested in a starting left tackle. Starks, though, will still likely have other suitors in free agency if he continues to play well and stays healthy through 2011.

Whereas he probably will receive a slightly better external offer in free agency, the Steelers might be able to re-sign Starks for something along the lines of a 2-year contract worth $5.5 million. This could include a $1.5 million signing bonus, $400K in a weight-clause bonus for 2012 and $500K for the same in 2013, and base salaries of $950K in 2012 and $2.15 million in 2013. Thus, his cap figure would be $2.1 million in 2012, increasing to $3.4 million in 2013.

Without a restructure of Harrison, the Steelers’ best chance of retaining Starks may be on a 3-year deal to minimize the immediate cap hit from the signing bonus. But that is a longer deal than the Steelers would prefer, and they would still have difficulty fitting him in under the cap. In all likelihood, the Steelers would then turn to Jonathan Scott, who they could likely sign for a 3-year deal with a 2012 cap hit for almost half of what Starks will likely command on the open market.

The Steelers simply cannot rely on Colon and Gilbert as their starting tackles for 2012. If healthy, they could use all three tackles in a rotation, or could theoretically move Colon or Gilbert inside to guard. Please remember that one starting guard, Chris Kemoteau, is a near-lock to be cut after June 1st in 2012 (to be discussed later). While I expect the Steelers to draft a guard early in the 2012 NFL Draft, the club’s other two starting guards this season (Foster and Legursky) are both slated to be unrestricted free agents after 2012, although I do have Legursky signing a long-term extension in my scenario above.

After Starks Re-Signs
I am going to assume that Hampton signs elsewhere. With several teams looking for an adept run-stuffer to play nose tackle in 3-4 defense, Hampton could easily receive an external offer that the Steelers cannot, should not and likely will not match, particularly since his aging body is becoming more prone to injuries. The Steelers will likely re-sign Hoke, but will wait to do so until after the draft to determine their depth-chart needs. The same holds true for third-team quarterback Charlie Batch, who will again be an unrestricted free agent after 2011. Neither would consider signing with another franchise.

The team would like to have Gay back as well. But with so many young cornerbacks on their roster exhibiting solid potential (Lewis, Allen, Brown), he will not be a priority. While it is doubtful any team would pay him money to be a starter, this might be the offseason where Gay finally receives a decent external offer to be a nickelback, because Gay is not only playing the best football of his career, but is also excelling in press, man-coverage.

Moreover, since they have more available cap space than expected based on the restructures (including Harrison), the Steelers will have already had internal discussions with Lewis’ agent at this point to see if an extension is possible. If not, re-signing Gay on a 2-year deal becomes more plausible.

However, the team will still re-sign some of its other unrestricted free agents before the draft, particularly since they would still have $1.4 million in cap space, plus the $1.5 million in exceptions after the re-signing of Starks.

Quarterback Byron Leftwich, who the Steelers have kept under contract despite missing almost all of the past two seasons with injuries, will generate little external interest, and probably feels he owes the team’s ownership for never cutting him. Leftwich will be re-signed on a 1-year deal for the veteran’s minimum of $825K for a player with his years of service. Veteran snapper Greg Warren who (knock on wood) is on pace to complete a second consecutive season without major injury, would also return on a 1-year deal for $825K.

Daniel Sepulveda has been among the most pleasant surprises for the Steelers this fall. Sepulveda missed all or parts of two seasons over the previous three years (2008-2010), struggling with consistency and just being bad at pooch punts. He re-signed with the Steelers on a 1-year minimum deal and was almost beaten out by the less-talented Jeremy Kapinos in the preseason.

But now Sepulveda is posting career bests in average yards per punt (46.1) and net average (40.6). However, those impressive totals still only rank 15th and 10th, respectively, this season among NFL punters. Due to his history of injuries, Sepulveda is not likely to garner much interest in free agency, although he may receive one or two other offers. Hopefully the Steelers will not reward his one strong year with a ridiculously over-priced deal like the 4-year, $6.3 million contract (with a $1.3 million signing bonus) they gave journeyman Shaun Suisham at kicker after his solid half-a-season in 2010. Thus, let’s say Sepulveda is re-signed on a 2-year deal worth $1.9 million, with a $400K signing bonus, and base contracts of $700K in 2012 and $800K in 2013, resulting in a $900K cap hit for 2012.

Having now used its three credits against future caps worth up to $1.5 million in re-signing Starks, Leftwich, Warren and Sepulveda, the Steelers would still be around $1.9 million under the cap entering the draft (remember that four players earning $390K were removed off the 2012 payroll after these four unrestricted free agents were re-added to the roster). Of course, by the start of the regular season that payroll stretches to all 53 players on the roster, including draftees, as well as players signed to the practice squad and any placed on the season-ending injured-reserve list.

More Moves During the Summer and Preseason
I apologize for the delay in publishing this analysis, since several unexpected tasks in my real job took precedence, although I appreciated all the complimentary e-mails asking when this article would be published. However, the fifth installment of this series (first 2012 NFL Mock Draft and projected 53-man roster for 2012) will appear next Tuesday, allowing fans to focus their immediate attention on Sunday’s showdown with the Ravens.

But astute fans may be able to guess what positions I see the Steelers drafting in 2012 based on the rest of my off-season activity. As previously mentioned, Hoke, who offers position flexibility at nose tackle and defensive end, will be brought back for his veteran’s minimum rate of $925K. Batch signs for the same 1-year contract of $925K. While it is tempting to go with a rookie developmental project as the No. 3 quarterback in such a tight cap year, the Steelers should not do so until Leftwich proves he can stay healthy for a full year.

The Steelers also work out a 3-year extension with Lewis that rips up the $1.25 million tender offer. The new deal is worth $8.3 million, with a $3.3 million signing bonus, base salaries of $700K in 2012, $1.2 million in 2013, and $2.1 million in 2014, and $500K non-guaranteed roster bonuses for 2013 and again in 2014. Now, Lewis could determine that his potential payday would be much greater if he waits for unrestricted free agency after 2012, and potentially he would be right.

However, that would be risky, since he has never been a starter and this deal puts good, immediate money in his possession, includes increasing annual salaries that he will likely earn in full based on decent performances, and the chance for a huge payday while he is still relatively young at the end of this contract if he proves himself as a quality starting corner over the next three years, or even after two years if the Steelers are convinced he is the long-term answer at cornerback. This new deal increases Lewis’ 2012 cap figure by $550K to $1.8 million.

These three deals (coupled with two players signed to futures contracts going off payroll) leaves the Steelers with just $250-300K in cap space. Depending on where they draft and how many picks they have, the team’s rookie payroll should be somewhere around $4-5 million, although $390K will be removed from the current payroll for each draftee signed. Still, to field a 53-man roster, practice squad, and possibly place a player or two on IR (thus adding cheap labor to the roster through replacements for at least $390K per player, since players on IR count against the cap in full), the Steelers probably still need to free up another $3 million or more in cap room.

Bye-Bye Chris Kemoteau
Among players signed through 2013, the only one unlikely to return to the Steelers next fall is left guard Kemoteau, who is great for the few plays per game when he pulls and a decent (but not dominating) straight-ahead run blocker, but a horrendous pass protector, who also gets some of the absolute dumbest post-whistle penalties imaginable.

Moreover, he has a debilitating knee problem that is not going to improve. Finally, whether it has been Legursky, Foster or even Trai Essex filling in when Kemoteau is injured, any drop-off in production has been minimal.

By waiting until after June 1st to cut Kemoteau, the Steelers will free up roughly $3.58 million, with about $1.685 million in dead money remaining on their cap for 2012 and the same amount in 2013 for Kemoteau.

I have seen some crazy names mentioned as possible players to release before 2012 who are signed before 2013, with none more ludicrous than Brett Keisel, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2010 and is clearly the team’s best defensive end again this fall.

Keisel restructured his contract before 2011 to help the Steelers get under the cap, thus increasing his cap figures for each of the next two years to $4.5 million per season with a $2.825 million base salary per year. That is a steal of a deal for the Steelers considering Keisel’s recent production, and that is even after increasing his 2012 and 2013 cap figures to lower his 2011 cap hit.

A more plausible but still unlikely cut among players signed through 2013 is starting free safety Clark, who also restructured his deal before 2011 to help the team get under the cap, but in the process made it less likely the Steelers can afford to cut him before 2012.

While the Steelers are likely to draft a free-safety prospect in 2012 to develop as a potential starter for possibly as early as 2013, no rookie free safety can start in LeBeau’s scheme, and the fall-off in quality between Clark and Mundy as a starter would be severe. However, the Steelers would save $3 million off his $4.25 million cap figure for 2012 if they release Clark after June 1st, meaning that is a possibility if the team is not able to free up as much money as I have through all these scenarios, probably due to some players costing more (Wallace, Starks?) and others (Harrison) either not agreeing to restructure their contracts or the Steelers not asking them to do so. In the case of post-June 1st cut, they would also still have to apply $1.25 million for Clark on their 2013 payroll.

However, a more likely scenario would be using the presence of the draftee to persuade Clark to essentially take a paycut for 2012, although that restructure could include a small signing bonus prorated over the two years and some NLTBE bonuses. Still, the front office would prefer not doing this at all. If they must, the request will likely be minimal (maybe a million in cap savings) for fear of losing their starting free safety in free agency (although he probably could not get a higher salary offer from another team) and avoiding the internal perception that they strong-armed a popular veteran to take a paycut, who also happens to be the team’s player rep in the union.

Regardless, the Steelers probably need to free up a little more space either through a Clark restructure, or slight restructuring (all guaranteed) to the contracts of other players, such as Taylor and/or Polamalu.

And while some might complain, I still have Pittsburgh returning one more of its own free agents for 2012. After my mock draft on Tuesday, I will have the Steelers with potentially their best seven-man rotation on the offensive line since 2004, and a lot of options as to who can start and where. However, after those seven the team will have nothing but journeyman and maybe a late-round rookie draft pick competing for the last couple of roster spots on a unit that almost always seems to have multiple injury problems, seemingly starting annually in the preseason each fall.

Therefore, the swingman Essex would be a nice addition at his veteran’s minimum of $825K for 2012 to at least serve as the team’s eighth lineman; but yet the cerebral Essex will likely end up dressing for most games due to other injuries and because he offers four-position flexibility, as well as experience in the system. Obviously they would rather have Jonathan Scott, but another team will likely offer him a multi-year deal better than the veteran’s minimum.

Conclusion
That does it and I am exhausted from my attempt just to show how hard it will be for the 2012 Steelers to get under the salary cap. Imagine how hard it will for the front office, which actually has to re-work and finalize so many deals (most before March 1st) to do so. And my process was done with a fairly high projected ceiling for each team’s cap and may include some overly optimistic estimates on the salaries a few specific players are willing to take to remain with the Steelers. Khan and Kevin Colbert are masters at the salary-cap game, but 2012 will present their greatest challenge.

UPDATE (11-5): For the third time in four years, Sepulveda has been placed on the season-ending injured-reserve list due to an undisclosed knee injury sustained this week at practice. How does an NFL punter built like King Kong get injured so often? Regardless, it is now highly unlikely the Steelers will re-sign Sepulveda (an unrestricted free agent) after 2011, opting to instead  go with someone like Jeremy Kapinos, who is more dependable. Remember that Sepulveda’s full contract counts against the team’s cap each season he gets injured, as does the prorated contract of his replacement. Every cap dollar will matter for the Steelers in 2012.

Assuming he is an adequate replacement for Sepulveda for the rest of this season – like he was in 2010 – Kapinos can be retained for $540K for 2012, which is a little more expensive than the $390K salary it would cost to keep a rookie free agent punter who will likely be brought in to compete with Kapinos for the 2012 training camp (no more drafting of punters). However, that $540K it would cost to keep Kapinos for 2012 on a 1-year veteran’s minimum contract would still be less than the $900K cap hit I had slotted to retain Sepulveda in the scenario above.

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

    Once again, excellent job, Mr. Kian. And thanks for all your hard work.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    Ted, thanks for doing this.  Lots of great stuff, here.

  • MJ

    Man this is not the offseason. Can we get some more of your quality ‘game’ analysis anytime in the near future?

  • ecks

    yeah good stuff here. thanks.

  • Canadian Steeler

    Great work. I’m a little confused to how retirement works though. My dream scenario involved a Super Bowl season with Ward, Farrior, etc. riding off into the sunset and clearing up a fair bit of cap room. Would them retiring count the same on the cap as it would if they were cut?

    • ted

       yes, barring extraordinary and rare cases that could theoretically results in special relief. These would not qualify as such. The dead money created would be the same if they retired or were cut, with the June 1st date the key for Ward on how much counts against the 2012 cap.

  • MaG

    Absolutely awesome ! Thanks !

  • Rclarkee22

    Thanks for your effort with this, helps us understand things big time!  

  • Steve

    Ted, the only thing I disagree with here – and I do so strongly – is your assertion that you’re not a cap expert.  There’s a lot of stuff here that I didn’t want to read (hard choices regarding Hines and Snack only two among many), but all of it is spot on.  Kudos and thanks aplenty.

    I will be referring back to your posts in coming months as draft and decision dates approach.

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