We all know that the Cleveland Browns have been in good cap shape for some time. We also know their offensive and defensive spending, what the money may look like in 2016 and even have an in-depth view of the Alex Mack contract situation. But how do the Browns stack up, financially, against the other three teams in the AFC North? Let’s take a closer look at the money being spent—or not spent—by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens this year, starting this week with the Steelers
2014 Rollover Cash: $778,496
Total 2015 Cap Room: $144,058,469
Total 2015 Spending: $153,216,900
Top 51 Spending: $136,026,900
Dead Money: $14,497,743
Cap Space (Top 51): $8,031,569
For the first time in a long time, the Pittsburgh Steelers actually have cap space to their name at this point in July. The Steelers have put themselves in a poor salary cap situation for years now, thanks to their spending habits—namely, they like to use restructured contracts as a way to free up money immediately, but those restructures also tie up considerable cash into the future. What is restructuring? Let’s say a player has $8 million due him over the next two years, at $4 million per year. But if a team is set to be over the cap this year, they can re-do that player’s contract to owe him $8 million over four years instead, or $2 million per year. On the one hand, that frees up $2 million immediately. But on the other, if that player’s status declines whether because a younger player is drafted and outperforms him or because he suddenly becomes past his prime, then the team is on the hook for that money for a longer period of time. They can cut him after two years, but that results in $4 million in dead money.
The Steelers took this approach with numerous contracts over the years, most notably with safety Troy Polamalu’s. As such, $4.5 million of the Steelers’ nearly $15 million in dead money this year belongs to Polamalu’s now-defunct contract, now that he has retired from the NFL. The risk of restructuring is that it pushes cap commitments into the future, when it may be harder to justify paying a player so much money. But the Steelers are slowly getting out of that phase in their financial history. The fact that they could carry as much as $8 million into 2016 is significant; the salary cap is set to go up at least $10 million next year which means the Steelers could finally become major players in free agency. While the Steelers like to pride themselves on home-grown talent, much of that pride has come out of necessity. It’s possible we could see a few high profile veteran signings in the future.
Looking at the Steelers’ current spending, and it’s not surprising most of their money—or 11.97 percent—of their 2015 cap space is going to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who signed a four-year, $87.4 million extension in March. Though it averages out to $21.85 million per year, as we all know contract values aren’t what they seem at face value. It’s more important to pay attention to the $31 million guaranteed money value. Also worth noting is that his base salary this year is just $1 million—most of his $17.245 million cap hit this year is in bonuses. Next year, though, his cap hit is over $23 million, with over $17 million of that coming in the way of salary.
What is even more interesting, though, is that the Steelers’ second-biggest outlay of cash this year goes to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who may not be a household name outside of the division. But Timmons was Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) 11th-ranked inside linebacker in 2014, coming in third overall at run-stopping and tied for 20th in coverage (for those interested, Browns’ inside backers Chris Kirksey and Karlos Dansby were first and second in coverage at the position). In fact, Timmons’ 2015 cap hit of $12,566,250 is just under $5 million less than Roethlisberger’s. But Timmons is now the de facto leader of Pittsburgh’s defense and an anchor in a linebacking corps that is, outside of him, largely rotational. He’s a prime example of a player worthy of a high-money contract even if your average NFL fan has no idea who he is. He’s glue, and money certainly sticks to glue.
Not shockingly, Pittsburgh’s third-biggest cap hit this year belongs to wideout Antonio Brown, who is currently the best player at his position in the NFL. But their next two big cash responsibilities are a bit more dismaying. The first being the $8.58 million in dead cash belonging to linebacker LaMarr Woodley, stemming from a six-hear, $61.5 million contract the Steelers game him in 2011, only to cut him in 2013. Woodley is currently on a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals worth a total of $950,000 in salary and bonuses. It would not be an understatement to say that the Steelers’ contract with Woodley was one of the team’s biggest financial mistakes of the last decade, if not longer. Rivaling that—depending on how 2015 pans out—is the $6.981 million due to cornerback Cortez Allen this season. Prior to the 2014 season, the Steelers gave Allen a four-year contract extension worth $24.6 million. It was expected he’d be a 16-game starter not just in 2014 but for most of the duration of that extension. Instead, Allen was demoted from starter on the outside to nickel corner and then to the bench to close out the year. If he can’t get back on track this year, that will be more money wasted by the Steelers.
Pittsburgh’s positional spending is, for the most part, pretty even. They have just under $64 million committed to the offense this year, and just under $63 million being paid out to the defense. Quarterback, understandably, commands the most money on offense, with only five teams spending more on the position this year. Defensively, the linebacker position is their most pricey for 2015, and again, this makes sense, given that Timmons is the team’s second-highest paid player this year. Where the Steelers are really finding value this season is on the offensive line, which is being paid just under $17.5 million, while getting run-blocking and pass-protecting production out of their linemen that rivals Cleveland’s—who are spending nearly $30 million on their offensive line this year. Receiver, too, is a bargain, considering that Brown makes up nearly $10 million of their $14 million spent on the position this season.
The Steelers have long been considered cap-savvy, which is surprising considering their seemingly endless reliance on restructuring in order to free up $1 or $2 million just to be cap compliant over the past 10 or so years. But that era is slowly coming to an end for the Steelers. Whether that means they can be more active in free agency moving forward or simply want to stockpile cash to pay their own players as the situation arises, we’ll have to wait and see. But the Steelers becoming cash-rich at a time they are also becoming increasingly Super Bowl relevant again could mean another long period of AFC North dominance for the team. It should be noted, though, that the Steelers are just one bad contract away from going back to their old ways. For the Steelers, managing the salary cap is a high-wire balancing act. They are coming out on top now, but one offseason of spending could send them back into their endless loop of contract restructures, and back into salary cap limbo.