Good football teams get expensive. The Pittsburgh Steelers face the dwindling days of labor lockout with a projected overage of more than $10 million against a proposed salary cap of $120 million. That figure looms especially large with as much roster work as they've got on their plate, and the shortened window left in which to do it in this most unusual offseason.
The good news is that much of that work involves players already under contract or tender, and won't require cap space beyond what they're already consuming. Several such moves would actually free up space, in potentially significant amounts. LaMarr Woodley signed his franchise tender prior to the lockout, at a one-year figure of $10.191 million, according to the terrific projections of Brian McIntyre at MacsFootballBlog.com. Even at premium prices, that number could handily be reduced down to a $4 or $5 million first-year cap hit. This kind of arrangement would push bigger cap figures into later years, but that's not atypical of how the Steelers have structured big veteran deals.
Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu enters his final year under contract. With his injury history, I might not be shocked if the team let him play out his deal with an eye towards applying a franchise tag next year, but if they do look at an extension, his ample $6.4 million base salary offers room for cap reduction by $2 or $3 million. Even Lawrence Timmons has more extension flexibility under the last year of his rookie contract than his minimum $650,000 base salary suggests; a $769,250 roster bonus and a $750,000 incentive could both be displaced by a new deal. (The timing of the roster bonus, which I don't know, will likely influence the timing of negotiations on an extension, as well.) A new deal would not likely save any cap expense, but it wouldn't have to add significant cap dollars, either.
Blockbuster extensions for Woodley or Polamalu could shave off cap dollars, but they'd also likely take time to hammer out. The front office will need to take faster action to get under a re-imposed cap before the bell rings on the new league year, to say nothing of getting far enough under to add free agents (their own or otherwise). The straightforward way to generate cap relief is to release expensive players, and the more obvious targets for such a maneuver are the team's higher-paid veteran backups.
A roster brimming with exciting young receivers in need of playing time might have pushed Antwaan Randle El off the roster, anyway; his release—assuming that the new rules look more or less like the old rules, as I will do several times in the course of this article—would save at least $1.7 million against the cap, minus the cost to replace him on the roster. Of course, that last part—replacement cost—often goes overlooked by fans looking to play Chopping-For-Dollars.
For that reason in part, restructures of veteran contracts may provide most of the immediate wiggle room. This has been a staple of Steelers cap management for a decade, but esoteric rules in 2009 limited the availability of the maneuver, and an uncapped 2010 rendered it pointless. The result is that the 2011 books show less proration from prior bonuses than usual. Nearly 80% of the year's cap commitments come from base salaries and non-prorating bonuses; in most years, that ratio falls somewhere within 10% of 50/50.
Without getting too bogged down in details, this means that they've got room to restructure deals without over-leveraging themselves. The temptation might be to create big room in one fell swoop, and the biggest swoop available is Ben Roethlisberger. His $11.6 million salary could be dropped to $1.6 million, with the remaining $10 million converted to signing bonus and spread over five remaining years on the deal, saving $8 million in 2011 cap dollars with the stroke of a pen. And, the accelerated post-lockout timeline may indeed force such an expedited move.
My opinion, though, is that it's better to avoid putting so many future cap dollars into one basket, especially one that's already rather full. A larger number of smaller moves could add up to significant savings, and reduce the risk of future cap problems with any individual player: drop Brett Keisel from $3.025 million to $925,000, convert the difference, save $1.4 million; drop Hines Ward from $4 million to $1 million, save $2 million; drop Ryan Clark from $2.5 million to $1 million, save a million. Any of a dozen veteran players could be so approached.
The cap crunch will probably force early decisions on veteran players that may have otherwise waited until training camp. I have made no secret on the message boards of my dissatisfaction with Flozell Adams' consistency, or my preference to see his cap dollar go toward a healthy Willie Colon. That may be a pipe dream, but regardless, I can't see Adams returning at his full scheduled salary of $5 million. If he's staying, I have to think that he'll be approached about a reduction.
Aaron Smith is about as respected a player as there is on the roster, but if he's not projected as a 16-game starter, they'll need to address his $4.5 million salary in the final year of his contract. He could be a perfect candidate for a one-year extension—such as they gave Jeff Hartings in 2006—that offers him close to the same total compensation for 2011, but reduces the cap hit substantially and leaves only manageable dead money in the books in 2012 if this year does turn out to be his swan song. If he'd agree to a one-year extension paying $3.5 million this year, with $2 million in signing bonus and $1.5 million in salary, that would shave $2 million off the cap, limit the future dead money liability, and keep a venerable player on the roster gunning for another championship.
All of this leads to the most pressing question: Can the Steelers possibly afford to retain an Ike Taylor, who may command north of $8 million a year on the open market? The short answer is, with all of the avenues available to create space, if the player is deemed to be enough of a priority, he could absolutely be signed. It's simply a matter of priority.