The Steelers did ink several large multi-year contracts this past off-season, but given the way their contracts are structured, the Steelers could actually save money against the salary cap by jettisoning some of these players. But the question is: should they do it? At some point, your salary cap can't be filled with dead money from players that aren't with the team. Some money has to be spent on players that will replace them and will actually see the field. The danger here is winding up like the Oakland Raiders or Washington Redskins. If the Steelers cut ties with too many players and incur too much dead money, they could have a minimal amount of room to spend on players that will actually play and be forced to stack their roster with late round draft picks and undrafted free agents.
For those not as familiar with the intricacies of the NFL Salary Cap, here's a quick refresher. When a player signs a contract their signing bonus is pro-rated over the life of the contract for cap purposes (so a $10 million signing bonus on a 5-year contract counts $2 million per year) even though the player receives that money up front. A player's salary cap number is their base salary for that year plus the pro-rated amount of their signing bonus. If a player is cut, the "dead money" against the cap is the remaining guaranteed money in the contract (primarily the remaining amount of pro-rated signing bonus money).
The team's total cap number is the summation of the cap numbers from their players under contract (including those on IR) and dead money from players cut that year. In the offseason, the "Rule of 51" applies where only the 51 highest salaries count towards the total cap number.
Currently, the Steelers are projected to have a total cap number of approximately $136 million in 2015, which includes the $9.4 million in dead money they are carrying forward from players cut this year.
The Steelers front office has been rightly criticized for some of their free agent signings in 2014, primarily because of their poor play. These criticisms are totally justified, but let's also give credit where credit is due. The Steelers did an excellent job in structuring the contracts of their free agent signees so that they could cut ties with these players if they didn't perform with minimal dead money hanging on the Cap. This has already come into play when the Steelers cut LeGarrette Blount with the consequence of only $475,000 in dead money against the 2015 Cap, which actually saved the team about $2 million in base salary.
There are 19 players currently on the Steelers roster whose contracts will expire at the end of this year. The headliners of the list are Jason Worilds, Ike Taylor, James Harrison, Will Allen, Matt Spaeth, Brice McCain, Antwon Blake and Arthur Moats. Currently, none of these players count towards the 2015 salary cap. The biggest and most immediate decision the Steelers will have to make is what to do with Jason Worilds. Worilds played in 2014 under a "transition" tag which paid him $9.5 million. The Steelers could use the Franchise Tag on Worilds which would keep him on the roster for another year at about $10 million, which might be more than the Steelers can afford under their current cap situation. The Steelers could try to work out a long-term deal for Worilds, but he would have most of the power in negotiations as the Steelers are strapped at Outside Linebacker without Worilds. Given his age and production, he is likely to get a contract in the range of 4-6 years for $6-$8 million per year on average.
Additionally, there are 13 players whose contracts expire after the 2015 season. The Steelers typically look to extend these players with a year remaining on their current deal in order to try to stretch out the signing bonus over more years. Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward, David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum are the biggest names on the list. The Steelers may look to extend at least one, if not all four of them in the 2015 offseason. Since DeCastro was a first round pick, the Steelers will have a "team option" to extend his contract by a year like they did with Heyward this year. Steve McLendon, Ramon Foster, William Gay, Bruce Gradkowski, Mike Adams and Sean Spence are also entering the last year of their contract in 2015, but it's hard to see the Steelers making an aggressive move to re-sign any of them this offseason.
Potential Cap Savings
2015 Cap Number: $8,250,000
Dead Money if Cut: $4,500,000
Cap Savings if Cut: $3,750,000
This one will be the hardest one to swallow for Steelers fans. The ideal scenario would be that Troy Polamalu would be allowed to retire and not put through the same situation James Harrison was when the Steelers terminated his contract. However, Polamalu has only been a shade of his former self on the field and currently has the 4th highest 2015 cap number. There is a significant amount of dead money incurred if Troy is cut or retires, but there is nearly as much cap savings.
2015 Cap Number: $6,981,000
Dead Money if Cut: $5,400,000
Cap Savings if Cut: $1,581,000
There isn't a lot of cap savings here, primarily because the Steelers just signed Allen to an extension before the 2014 season. Allen responded by having the worst year of his career and was benched in favor of Brice McCain and Antwon Blake. One factor in play here is that Allen is due a $3 million roster bonus in April, which the Steelers would not have to pay him if he is cut before then. Would the Steelers incur $5.5 million in dead money to save $3 million in the bank? The ball is primarily in Allen's court on this one. If the coaches believe he is a lost cause, he will likely be gone. If they believe he can work through his issues and be a productive player then he will still be on the team in 2015.
2015 Cap Number: $4,950,000
Dead Money if Cut: $3,800,000
Cap Savings if Cut: $1,150,000
There isn't a ton of savings here, but to call Mitchell's play subpar would be a generous statement. Another factor in play is that Mitchell is due a $2 million roster bonus in April. If the Steelers cut him before April, they would save $2 million in the bank and jettison one of their worst defensive players. Like with Cortez Allen, the big question will be whether or not the Steelers think they can get a replacement-level player for the savings they can get from cutting Mitchell. Unfortunately, I have a feeling Mitchell will be given another year to prove himself.
2015 Cap Number: $2,500,000
Dead Money if Cut: $500,000
Cap Savings if Cut: $2,000,000
Looking at the numbers, Cam Thomas is as good as gone. Looking at his play on the field, he is most definitely gone. Thomas has been the Steelers worst defensive lineman and has yet to make a productive impact on this team. Until Brett Keisel got hurt, he continued to get playing time ahead of rookie Stephon Tuitt, much to the chagrin of many Steelers fans and media members. After Keisel's injury, Tuitt stepped in and excelled which should make cutting Thomas an easy decision.
2015 Cap Number: $1,822,500
Dead Money if Cut: $322,500
Cap Savings if Cut: $1,500,000
The Steelers brought in Moore to be a possession receiver out of the slot. He has not performed up to expectations and was surpassed on the depth chart by Martavis Bryant. It is hard to see the Steelers keeping Moore around for the second year of his deal, especially when they can save $1.5 million by letting him go.
2015 Cap Number: $1,750,000
Dead Money if Cut: $250,000
Cap Savings if Cut: $1,500,000
Like with Troy, letting Keisel go will not be an easy thing to do. If he is able to recover from his triceps injury, this is a very reasonable price for a depth defensive lineman. However, it is hard to say if Keisel will opt to retire or try to stick it out for one more season. Keisel will be 37 years old next year so it is hard to say if he will have anything left in the tank.
Not Going Anywhere
Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Cam Heyward, David DeCastro, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Le'Veon Bell, Stephon Tuitt.
Looking purely from a salary cap perspective, these are the players the Steelers simply can't afford to cut. While Jarvis Jones has not been very productive in his second year due to a broken wrist, the Steelers would actually lose money against the cap if they were to let him go. So like it or not, Jones will be a Steeler in 2015. The only other name on this list that might come as a bit of a surprise would be Marcus Gilbert. Gilbert was just signed to a contract extension in the 2014 offseason and like Jones, it would cost the Steelers more to cut him than it would cost to keep him on the roster.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Once again, the Steelers will be in a tight salary cap situation in 2015 unless the cap increases above current estimates. The Steelers $136 million in projected cap spending comes from just 39 active player contracts (including the 6 players profiled in the "Cap Savings" category). The Steelers have not traded away any of their 2015 draft picks and will likely get 1 or 2 compensatory picks. Nevertheless, the Steelers still have to come up with a 53-man roster to put on the field in 2015 that fits under the salary cap. Based on the projections from Over The Cap, the Steelers currently have about $4.7 million in cap space. If Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel retire, this number increases to $10 million and could increase to $13.5 million if Cam Thomas and Lance Moore are cut. The Steelers could also generate additional 2015 cap space by signing Ben Roethlisberger to a contract extension (which seems very likely). Cam Heyward, with a cap hit of $6.9 million is a possibility for an extension but it's likely his cap hit would not be changed much with an extension. An extension for Kelvin Beachum is unlikely before training camp because his rookie contract has such a small cap hit ($671,474) that any extension would increase his cap number. The Steelers probably won't make any move there until after the draft when they know how much cap space they have available.
Looking further down the road, the Steelers second largest cap hit is that of Lawrence Timmons, but his contract expires after 2016 so it would be very difficult to restructure his contract, lest the Steelers put themselves in a bad cap situation next year as well. Rather than restructure, the Steelers could look to extend Timmons, which could spread some of his base salary money out over the next 4 or 5 years.
(click to enlarge, via Over The Cap)
The Steelers top 10 contracts in 2015 account for 65% of their total cap spending. As already discussed, Ben Roethlisberger will likely receive a contract extension that will lessen his 2015 cap hit. Cam Heyward is an extension possibility but the impact on his cap hit will likely be minimal based on the amount of guaranteed money other 3-4 DEs have received recently. Lawrence Timmons and Antonio Brown are not candidates for restructure based on the amount of money and years left in their contracts. Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert are untouchable based on the limited cap savings their release would generate. Troy Polamalu's play suffered a sharp decline so he will probably not be part of the 2015 Steelers. This leaves a key decision on two players: Cortez Allen and Mike Mitchell. Both players were given long-term deals before the 2014 season are were expected to be cornerstones of the secondary moving forward. As I already discussed, cutting either player would incur a significant amount of dead money against the cap, and the Steelers might not be able to sign a replacement player for the amount of cap money saved.
If Mitchell and Allen are retained while the other 4 (Polamalu, Keisel, Thomas and Moore) retire or are released, the Steelers will have 35 players under contract with about $13 million in cap space left to fill out the rest of the roster. Looking back to the 2014 offseason, the Steelers were able to sign 12 players and only spend about $11.5 million against the 2014 cap. Granted, 8 of the 12 players were signed to veteran minimum contracts. The Steelers will be able to be active on the free agent market but they will probably not be contenders for any of the top-tier free agents. Rather, they will have to fill the holes in their lineup with relatively cheap options.
2014 Free Agency Summary
In conclusion, "blowing it all up" sounds good in theory, but in the salary cap NFL it's not likely a viable option for the Steelers. The core players of the 2015 Steelers will likely be mostly the same as the core players of 2014. On offense, this means Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller, Kelvin Beachum, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey. Ramon Foster, the 11th starter on offense, has one year left on his contract at a reasonable price. On defense, there is a bit more leeway for roster decisions. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt will both return on the defensive line.Steve McLendon only has one year remaining and backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers will be with the team at least through training camp. As I already detailed, Jarvis Jones, Lawrence Timmons, Sean Spence, Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier aren't going anywhere (unless the Steelers try to trade one of their inside linebackers during the draft). In the secondary, the team will have to decide on the risk-reward of keeping Cortez Allen and Mike Mitchell, but there is an obvious hole at corner. William Gay only has 1 year remaining and the only other corner currently on the roster is free agent acquisition B.W. Webb who barely played this year. Shamarko Thomas would be the presumed replacement for Troy Polamalu and Ross Ventrone was our best special teams player in 2014 which likely keeps him on the roster through training camp.
While the Steelers can't "blow it all up" and get rid of everyone because of the salary cap, they are looking at a roster turnover of 15-20 players (28% to 38%). About half of these players will be replaced by rookies and the Steelers should have enough money to be active on the free agent market, though they won't have the funds to be able to make a huge splash like signing Justin Houston or Ndamukong Suh. That said, there are quality players out there the Steelers could sign to improve their roster, but they will once again be working within the confines of limited cap space.