Thursday, April 3, 2014

Recapping the Steelers Offseason Moves

Recently, someone asked me what the heck the Steelers were doing this offseason. To the casual outside observer, the Steelers failed to re-sign almost all of their starters that were pending free agents, save Jason Worilds who they used the Transition Tag on before cutting LaMarr Woodley. Since the Steelers are now right about at the Salary Cap, it is unlikely that they will make any more big signings this offseason. We can look at the picture as a relative whole with the benefit of hindsight and formulate an answer to just what did the Steelers do over the last month?

To understand the situation of the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are two factors that are in play - the Salary Cap and the Depth Chart. To get a sense for how the front office tackled free agency, here's a look at how things stood for the Pittsburgh Steelers at the end of the 2013 season:

Of the 65 players that ended 2013 on the active roster or injured reserve, 21 were pending free agents. On top of that, the Steelers were facing a salary cap squeeze. In 2013, the top 10 cap hits totaled $70.5 million (about 57% of the $123 million cap). Three of those 10 players (Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood) were pending fee agents. The remaining 7 players had a cap hit of about $83 million on the books for 2014 because of contract escalators. Even when the 21 pending free agents were removed from the roster, the Steelers were hovering right around $135 million in cap hits, which would have put them over the cap for 2014.

Jason Worilds

The first move that the Steelers made this offseason, which came as a bit of a surprise, was to use the Transition Tag on Jason Worilds. The Transition Tag provided Worilds with a guaranteed 1-year contract at $9.75 million, which solidified the Steelers outside linebacker position but also put them about $14 million over the $133 million cap. To offset this, the Steelers made a series of moves to get into cap compliance.

Heath Miller Extension

Heath signed a 3-year extension on his current deal which saved around $3 million in salary cap space. This was a very team-friendly deal in that his cap hits for 2015 and 2016 will be under $6 million and the Steelers would have minimal dead money if they decided to release Heath before the end of his contract ($3.3 million dead if cut in 2015, $1.7 million dead if cut in 2016). If he plays through this extension, Heath Miller would be a Steeler through the end of the 2016 season.
(via Spotrac)

Troy Polamalu Extension

Similar to the Heath Miller contract, Troy signed a team-friendly extension through 2016 that reduced his 2014 cap hit by about $4 million. Once again, the Steelers would incur relatively low amounts of dead money if they cut Troy before his contract ends ($4.5 million dead if cut in 2015, $2.3 million dead if cut in 2016).
(via Spotrac)

Three Cuts: Larry Foote, Curtis Brown, Levi Brown

The Levi Brown move was one that everyone knew was coming. Levi had a $6.25 million base salary with no bonus money, and the Steelers saved $6.25 million against the cap by cutting him. Curtis Brown was a player that never reached his potential as a 3rd round draft pick, despite being an excellent special teams player. Curtis was best known as a cornerback who Kevin Colbert said "hits like a linebacerk...and covers like one too." Curtis Brown's cut saved around $1 million against the cap, and cutting Larry Foote saved about $1.5 million.

Restructures and Reductions: Ike Taylor and Antonio Brown

Ike Taylor only had 1 year left on his contract and saved the Steelers about $4 million in cap room by accepting a reduced salary for this season. This was a smart move by Taylor who was likely put in a similar situation to James Harrison last year where he was given the option to play for less money or be released. Taylor chose to play for less and freed up some cap room for the Steelers. Additionally, Antonio Brown restructured his contract by converting most of his base salary into bonus money. In doing so, Brown got a check for $5.27 million right away, but the Steelers were able to amortize that amount over the remaining 4 years of his contract for cap purposes. This saved about $4 million in cap space for the Steelers in 2014.
Antonio Brown Contract Restructure:
(via Spotrac)

When Free Agency started on March 11, the Steelers had about $7.5 million in cap space and plenty of holes to fill. Additionally, the Steelers designated LaMarr Woodley as a June 1 cut, which meant that Woodley hit the free agent market but the Steelers would not receive salary cap relief until June 1. They did this so that they could spread out the "dead money" left in his contract over two years ($5 million in 2014, $8 million in 2015) rather than incurring all $13 million in dead money this season if they would have cut him outright. If you can stomach it, here's a look at the Steelers depth chart when free agency began.

There were obviously holes that needed to be filled in this roster, and with only $7.5 million in cap space, the Steelers had to make judicious decisions with their money.  One thing working to the advantage of the Steelers is a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that veterans signed to minimum contracts only count 60% against the Salary Cap. Therefore, the Steelers were able to re-sign veteran safety Will Allen at a minimum deal which will pay Allen $955,000 but he will only count $570,000 against the cap.


The first move the Steelers made in free agency was to sign safety Mike Mitchell to a 5-year, $25 million deal. This might seem high for a 26-year old that only has one season as a starter. However, Mitchell's contract is structured in a way that gives the Steelers a relatively easy out should he not pan out. Mitchell's contract has a $2 million roster bonus built in for 2015, which the Steelers could save if they cut him after this season (though it would likely take a disastrous 2014 for that to happen). Mitchell's base salary does not increase to $5 million until 2016, the third year of the deal, at which point the Steelers could cut him with less than $3 million dead against the cap. Mitchell had the best season of his career at the back end of Carolina's defense last year, finishing 4th on the team in tackles and had 4 interceptions and 10 passes defended.
(via Spotrac)

By comparison, Ryan Clark just signed a 1-year deal with the Washington Redskins for $1.02 million.

Offensive Line

The Steelers made a few depth moves by signing Center Cody Wallace and Long Snapper Greg Warren. Wallace signed a 3-year, $3.48 million contract that solidifies his spot as a reserve interior lineman after he had a solid end to 2013 in relief of Fernando Velasco. Warren is one of the longest-tenured Steelers and one of the few players left on the roster with 2 Super Bowl Rings. He has been solid and consistent as a long-snapper and his 1-year, veteran minimum contract will keep the position solidified for another season. The Steelers also re-signed Guy Whimper to a veteran minimum contract. I'm not sure if I've ever seen a player go from "Oh no, he's in the game" to "Oh yeah!" as fast as Whimper did this past season. As far as veteran reserve linemen go, Whimper is good enough and can play both tackle or guard. With the re-signing of Wallace and Whimper, the Steelers offensive line should be mostly in tact for 2014 with Beachum-Foster-Pouncey-DeCastro-Gilbert and Adams, Whimper and Wallace in reserve.

Defensive End

Within the first 3 days of Free Agency, the Steelers had lost two of their free agent defensive ends. Ziggy Hood signed a 4-year, $16 million deal with Jacksonville and Al Woods signed a 2-year, $4 million deal with Tennessee. One day after Ziggy signed, the Steelers made a counter move by signing Cam Thomas from San Diego, who had played both defensive end and nose tackle for the Chargers. Here's what John from Bolts from the Blue had to say about Thomas:
"He's an above-average pass rusher from the NT spot, but he's equally terrible against the run. A strong guy that has some trouble with his core balance. His "breakout season" was in 2012, when he was almost exclusively used on passing downs. He really found out how to make an impact when there were good players around him (Liuget, Reyes, Butler, Ingram, Johnson, and Spikes were all very good that season) Had a few QBs running for their life straight into an outside pass-rusher. 
In 2013, the team thought he was ready to handle the starting role, but he was not. He was wildly inconsistent and struggled to keep his feet on early downs. The talent around him got worse (Reyes was bad, Butler was hurt, Ingram was hurt, Spikes was gone), which allowed teams to focus a little more on Cam, and it was only a matter of time before he lost his job. 
Overall, Cam has loads of potential but needs to be in the right system. I imagine LeBeau is going to find ways to tap into the things he does well and hide what he doesn't. Unfortunately, it took the entire length of his rookie contract for the Chargers to figure out what those things are, and now they need a starting NT more than they need a pass-rush specialist there. That's why they let Cam walk." (Follow John on Twitter @BFTB_Chargers
The Steelers signed Thomas to a 2-year, $4 million deal, nearly identical to the one Woods signed in Tennessee.

The biggest thing that jumps out from this comparison is that the Steelers were able to sign Thomas for 2 years for less total money than Ziggy's cap hit this year. Of course, the Steelers lost 3 defensive linemen this year (unless they decide to bring back Brett Keisel) so they will still be in the market for defensive linemen in the draft.

Wide Receiver

It was almost a foregone conclusion that Emmanuel Sanders would be gone in free agency, and he did not surprise anyone by signing a 3-year, $15 million deal with the Denver Broncos. The big surprise here was the departure of Jerricho Cotchery, who most thought would re-sign with the Steelers. Cotchery opted to sign a 2-year, $5 million deal with Carolina that included 3 club option years and could ultimately be a 5-year, $8 million deal if he stays with the Panthers for all of the option years. The Steelers countered by signing Lance Moore to a 2-year, $3 million deal (similar to the one Cotchery was playing under). Here's what our friends from the Saints Nation Blog had to say about Moore:
"Moore had a disappointing down year in New Orleans last year, which led to his release. Quite frankly he was getting paid too much for his relative lack of production. The contract he signed with the Steelers in totally reasonable, in fact I would have been fine keeping him at that price. Lance is just a great guy to have on your team. Super fun and always keeping things light at practice, while still taking his job seriously. Moore stood out for his first down celebrations and touchdown dances, he's definitely a guy that likes to call attention to himself on the field with playful antics, but he's not a prima donna at all. He's more of an entertainer looking to entertain himself while trying to win football games.  
Don't mistake my comments for him being a distraction. He's a high character guy that's just a bit of a goof. On the field he has as good of a pair of hands as anyone in the league. He is an elite pass catcher that seldom has drops. He also runs fantastic routes and is very good at finding soft spots in a zone. He's not the fastest guy on the field but his cuts are quick and he has great technique.  
The negatives are that he's tiny, not that fast and a liability as a blocker. For a running team like the Steelers, I'm not sure how much sense he makes unless there's an obvious passing down. When you're passing, Big Ben's ability to buy time with his size might actually help Moore get open and make more of an impact. Brees gets rid of the ball very quickly and his passing is all about timing, he and Lance had great chemistry. Playing against a zone he would get open quickly in the soft spot and Brees would put the ball exactly where it needed to be. But his lack of size sometimes made him struggle as a "timing offense receiver". So I think he *could* be even better with the Steelers.  
Because of his size Lance tends to shy away from contact, and he'll go down easy trying to avoid a big hit. He's not the lunch pail type of player that you usually expect to see in a Steelers uniform. He'll happily go out of bounds and give up a yard to avoid being tackled. He's more of a finesse guy. He struggled last year due to injuries early, and then he lost reps when he returned to rookie Kenny Stills who emerged as a faster, bigger and better blocking version of himself. But I don't think he's declined that much (unless of course he gets injured again).
Bottom line: he'll never be mistaken for a #1 receiver but he's a GREAT dude and he's fun and exciting to watch. All you can ask for in a non-elite receiver is that he catches what's thrown to him, and Lance almost always does that. He even makes the circus catches. And he has ridiculous leaping ability to make him play a little bit bigger than his size. He's a nice complement to any offense.
" (Follow the Saints Nation Blog on Twitter @SaintsNationBlg)
The Steelers also added Darrius Heyward-Bey to the receiving corps. DHB had a bit of a down year in Indianapolis after being surpassed by TY Hilton on the depth chart. Heyward-Bey struggled with drops but he does provide a taller target. Much like the Plaxico Burress signing, this is a low-risk-high-reward deal that could pay huge dividends to the Steelers if Heyward-Bey can fix his dropitis.

(Note: Full details of DHB's contract have not been released so the amount and cap hit are guesses based on the veteran minimum)

As we see, the Steelers got Moore for a relative bargain. Though he didn't have as many catches or yards as Cotchery or Sanders, his cap hit is $500K less than Cotchery in 2014, which gives the Steelers room to add another player on a veteran minimum contract. Given the Steelers tight cap situation, think of it as them being able to sign Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey for what Jerricho Cotchery would have cost. The Steelers weren't going to sign Sanders, and this was definitely a case of the Steelers getting the most bang for their limited buck in free agency.

Tight End

This was a relatively simple move, but one that still had positive salary cap implications. The Steelers re-signed veteran backup Michael Palmer, who played well on special teams and in a blocking role last season. Palmer was signed to a 1-year deal (likely at the veteran minimum). Meanwhile, San Diego signed  David Johnson to a 2-year, $1.7 million contract. Johnson has been on injured reserve each of the last two seasons and you can't blame the Steelers at all for letting him walk in free agency, especially when they could sign Palmer for a lower price.

Running Back

In one of the surprises of the offseason, Jonathan Dwyer opted to sign a 1-year, veteran minimum deal with Arizona. Many (including myself) thought that the market for Dwyer would be relatively limited and that the Steelers could sign him for a low price to stay in the reserve RB role. With Dwyer gone, the Steelers went out and signed LeGarrette Blount, who is basically the definition of a Steelers running back. Since I don't want to put myself through the agony of following any Patriots fans on Twitter, I went to Tampa Bay fan Ryan T for his insight:
"During his time in Tampa he was sort of an enigma. You can see that the talent is there but certain things stuck out. If he had open holes he hit them and they usually resulted in huge gains, but when there wasn't rather than trying to lower his shoulders and pick up tough yards he would look to bounce runs far too much. 
I always thought of Blount as a finesse back stuck in a power backs body. He was terrible at goalline situations. He hesitated when receiving the handoff which allowed defense to get penetration and then would end up getting little or no gains. 
When he's in the open field though he is down right impressive. The highlight reels do him justice in that aspect. Defensive backs were often too scared to tackle him head up so he would jump over them, leading to all the highlights. 
He's never been a good pass protector or receiver out of the backfield. His hands are alright, but the pass blocking is the bigger concern. He would blow assignments bad living usually Freeman's blind side wide open for defenders. 
With all that said I think he's a great fit in Pittsburgh. Last year with the Patriots it appeared that he finally started listening to coaching. I saw improved leg drive, commitment to staying where the run was supposed to go. I think he is the perfect closer to a game when he has fresh legs and the defense is tired." (Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanTerrana)
Blount's 2-year, $3.85 million contract will solidify the backup running back spot for the near future and give us that 1-2 punch that we have been missing in the backfield.

As a comparison, the Steelers had also looked at Maurice Jones-Drew, who signed with Oakland for 3 years, $7.5 million and has a 2014 cap hit of $2.5 million, which is double what the Steelers have on the books for LeGarrette Blount in 2014.

Defensive Depth

The Steelers also signed two veteran players for depth on the defensive side of the ball. They added linebacker Arthur Moats from Buffalo and cornerback Brice McCain from Houston on 1-year, veteran minimum deals. Moats could play both inside or outside linebacker and might be able to win the starting role next to Lawrence Timmons. McCain will likely be in a depth battle for the 3rd/4th/5th corner spot but provides a solid special teams player to replace what the Steelers lost when they cut Curtis Brown.

Bills Mafia Editor-in-Chief Ryan (not the same as Bucs fan Ryan that helped us out with the Blount info) was kind enough to drop some Moats knowledge on us:
"Defensively, Moats won't jump off the screen to fans at home, but when he's in the game he does very well in terms of run defense. He'll also be a solid special teams contributor for the Steelers. Moats is a player who will do anything asked of him. I was told that the Steelers want to play Moats at OLB, but he has the versatility to play ILB too.  
Moats' biggest weakness is in coverage. He struggles in this aspect of the game, but I know the Steelers will be wise in how they use him. 
I almost felt sorry for Moats in terms of how he was used. Due to his versatility, the Bills kept flipping him back and forth between OLB and ILB. It's almost as if he couldn't get settled in one spot early in his career. In 2010 and 2011, Moats lined up as the Sam and Will LB and played a bit as a defensive end. Moats' snaps were limited in 2012 but he mostly played Sam LB. This last season, Pettine lined him up mostly as the right inside linebacker. I know Pettine and the Browns pursued him for the same role this offseason." (Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanTalbotBills)
As things stand right now at the beginning of April, the Steelers have a minimal amount of cap room remaining and probably won't make many other moves unless they are able to find a way to reduce their current cap hits. The easiest way to do that would be to sign Jason Worilds to a long-term contract that could potentially reduce his 2014 cap hit from $9.75 million to around $5 or $6 million. The Steelers will get enough relief from the Woodley cut (about $8 million) on June 1 to sign their draft picks, so they will not have to cut anyone to be in cap compliance by the beginning of training camp. Here is how the Steelers depth chart looks right now:

Right now there are 60 players on this depth chart, as I did not include the players the Steelers signed to reserve/futures contracts during the offseason (with the exception of punter Brad Wing). The Steelers have 9 picks in the 2014 draft, so it is likely that 10-15 of the players that appear here will not be on the final roster. Despite having limited salary cap space, the Steelers were still able to add 11 players to their roster during the first 3 weeks of Free Agency.

The Steelers were able to sign 12 players and add just $11.5 million to their salary cap while the 7 players that they lost in free agency will count for $13.5 million in cap hits this season. Now, you might be wondering how the Steelers can go from having $7.5 million in cap space to being able to add $11.5 million. Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, only the top 51 salaries count towards the cap during the offseason. This is known as the "Rule of 51" and means that even though teams can have up to 90 players on their offseason rosters, only the highest 51 salaries count against the cap. Therefore, in the case of LeGarrette Blount, his 2014 cap hit of $1.375 million displaced a $495,000 salary so the net increase to the Steelers 2014 cap number was less than $1 million. It is unlikely the Steelers  will be able to add another player without first renegotiating a current player's contract (Lawrence Timmons is the logical choice here) or extending a player that is entering the last few years of their contract (Ben Roethlisberger is the obvious candidate here) or extending Jason Worilds to lower his 2014 cap hit.

On the whole, the Steelers did the most that they could given their limited amount of cap space. They added veteran players and only 5 of the 12 players that were signed are returning from the team that went 8-8 last year. Given the number of players that were pending free agents, the Steelers are clearly better now than they were 3 weeks ago when free agency began.

No comments: