Money Matters: Digging Out

SCI capologist Ian Whetstone devises financial plan to allow Steelers to keep Harrison and Colon without extending Roethlisberger. But there would be one surprise cut.

I've said before, good football teams get expensive. A reduced salary cap from the newest collective bargaining agreement, negligible cap growth in the years since, and a decade of consistent contention have the Pittsburgh Steelers facing a $13.9 million overage against a projected $121 million cap for the 2013 season. That's just considering players already under contract. Add tenders for restricted free agents, the draft class, a practice squad, and all of the other predictable costs, and that figure balloons to $24.5 million before a single free agent is added.

They simply can't cut their way out from under that figure. If every single one of Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor, Heath Miller, Willie Colon, Ryan Clark, and Brett Keisel were released outright, they would still come up more than a million bucks short, even before considering the cost to replace them on the roster.

While more than $36 million could be saved by conventionally restructuring the eleven veterans who offer savings by such means (Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Polamalu, Colon, Antonio Brown, Harrison, Taylor, Miller, Shaun Suisham, and Maurkice Pouncey), age and future cap consequences demand prudence in the extent to which that tactic is employed.

Among that list, Roethlisberger, Timmons, and Brown look to me like automatic restructures. (I'm inclined to add Woodley to the list, but I'll defer for now to those who want to see his offseason conditioning before committing more guaranteed dollars.) Those three moves push $15.6 million into future years: $6.15 million into each of 2014 and 2015, $2.56 million into 2016, and $770,000 into 2017. That gets them almost two-thirds of the way home.

Many assume that Colon will be on his way out after he ended his third season in a row on injured reserve, but the organization clearly likes him as a player. Moreover, he offers limited 2013 cap savings by such a move; indeed, $1.2 million minus cost of replacement may well result in no cap savings at all. Assuming that his injury prognosis is good, this could be a scenario wherein a negotiated reduction in salary makes sense for all parties. At half of his scheduled $5.5 million base, the team would realize a dollar-for-dollar 2013 cap savings of $2.75 million without pushing any cap dollars into future years, and Colon would see more money than he'd likely find on the open market.

In a January press conference, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert included extensions as a component of the plan to get under the salary cap. Any number of players offer the potential for cap savings, but which make the most sense? With three years left on his deal, it feels premature to extend Roethlisberger. Miller might otherwise fit, but not while rehabbing a serious knee injury. Many of the older players fall beyond the point where it makes sense to do so, and none of the younger players present much in the way of cap savings.

Going into the 2009 season, Hines Ward remained very productive, but faced his 33rd birthday and carried a cap figure over $8 million. He agreed to a cap-reducing contract extension that offered him the same $5.8 million that he'd been due under his existing deal—with $3.05 million changed to a signing bonus—and a flat $4 million in each of the extension years. To me, Clark fits a similar profile on the current roster, and might similarly be willing to take a team-friendly extension that offers him some money up front and more modest salaries on the back end. Even a two-year extension at $3.5 million per year could shave $1.7 million off of his 2013 cap number, and retain a still-productive veteran leader at a manageable $4.35 million cap charge over each of the following two seasons.

Harrison's agent Bill Parise has declared no interest by his client in taking a pay cut, but take tough talk from agents with a grain of salt. In 2006, Jeff Hartings signed a one-year extension that dropped his compensation for the season by $800,000 and his cap figure by $1.775 million. An extension gives an agent room to present a pay cut with a friendlier face, with imaginary "new money" providing cover for the adjustment. Harrison is slated to earn $6.57 million in 2013; if they could talk him down to $5 million in compensation as part of a one-year extension on top of his two remaining years under contract, they could easily pare $2.5 million off of his scheduled cap figure.

That brings us to the painful part of the process: veteran cuts. Any way they slice it, they're almost certainly going to have to cut somebody who they'd rather keep. Maybe that winds up being Harrison, Clark and/or Colon, but as I look at where they've invested recent draft capital, my guess is that Keisel gets the surprise axe. I'll hate to see it, but it does offer $3.225 million in cap savings between his salary and likely-to-be-earned incentives.

Those four moves clear the remaining space needed, with room to spare for a few bargain basement additions in free agency. That's without touching the contracts of Woodley or Miller, who could always be approached if an opportunity presents itself in free agency. If a young player like Keenan Lewis can be retained, that prompts a decision on Taylor's contract; as with Keisel, I would hate to see a productive veteran leader go, but the cap savings could cover the first-year cost of a Lewis retention.

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