This offseason finds them still working toward that overhaul, as a decade of serious success left a pricey veteran roster that doesn't figure to dissipate overnight.
A year ago, they faced a projected overage of $13.9 million before a single offseason expense was considered; now, they face an almost identical $13.8 million in committed expenses over a projected 2014 salary cap.
This year, though, it's a much softer $14 million.
Last year, four restricted free agents made for an additional $5.3 million in tender expenses beyond the projected overage; this year's roster includes no restricted free agents in line for such tenders.
Last year, the team rolled over less than $800,000 in unused cap dollars from the previous season; this year, they figure to roll over more than $1.3 million.
And like last year, the overage this year is based upon a conservative league projection of the upcoming salary cap; as it did then, the final cap may well land $1-2 million higher than the projected $126.3 million.
More than that, this year's roster features one very easy move to free a decent chunk of cap dollars. Levi Brown — he of the zero snaps played, $6.25 million 2014 cap charge, and zero dead money — may well be the easiest cut in the salary cap era.
A key piece of the offseason puzzle will be an extension for Ben Roethlisberger. Because they need to create space early if they are to retain their own free agents, I would expect work on a new deal for their franchise quarterback to commence sooner than later. Even at the inflated rates that recent deals set for lesser quarterbacks such as Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, an extension could readily shave $4 million off of Roethlisberger's 2014 cap hit.
Three core players of the Super Bowl teams enter the final year of high-paying contracts in 2014. Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, and Heath Miller stand to make $21.27 million between them in completely fungible cap dollars. Any of them could generate significant cap savings by either extension, reduction, or release, and all three appear to have varying degrees of football left in them. Extend Miller and negotiate a reduction with Taylor to about half of his $7 million salary, and clear another $6-7 million in cap dollars.
These moves in total bring us from a $13.8 million overage to better than $4 million under the projected cap. That's more than enough to fit a first-year hit for any deal that Jason Worilds would rationally command.
Keen on keeping Ziggy Hood? Expect something like a $3 million first-year hit. Emmanuel Sanders? $2.5 million. Jerricho Cotchery, something like $1.75 million. Other free agents such as Will Allen, Jonathan Dwyer, Fernando Velasco, Greg Warren, and Felix Jones can probably be retained with minimum salary benefit deals. These contracts cost no more than $215,000 in net cap space, once they displace others from the top 51 salaries that count against the cap during the off-season. An extension for Maurkice Pouncey would require no more space than he's already set to count, and one for Cortez Allen ought not require more than an additional million dollars.
Other predictable expenses will arise as next season approaches: standard workout bonuses, draft pick signings, a practice squad, and other considerations will require about $6.3 million in additional free space. But, plenty of options remain to produce that space. I arrived at more than $4 million under while cutting no one but Brown, and without a single conventional restructure of an existing contract. Such restructures have been the go-to means for creating cap space in the Kevin Colbert era, and contracts remain for Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Brown, and others that offer options for significant additional savings.
Keep the restructures conservative: shave $2 million each from Brown and Timmons. Smaller deals for Steve McLendon, Ramon Foster, Bruce Gradkowski, and William Gay can be nipped and tucked to save almost $2 million more. Thank Larry Foote for a truly fine career, and now the predictable expenses are covered with room to spare.
To the broader point, space can be made to accommodate the moves that they deem necessary to continue the roster overhaul and return to perennial title competition, and these moves need not be overly painful or aggressive.