Continuing their recent trend, the Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2016 offseason in incrementally better cap position than a year ago. The league-wide cap reduction in 2011 coincided with a competitive-but-aging roster, and that expensive combination has left them digging out from under moderate cap constraints ever since.
The league office informed teams some weeks ago to anticipate a 2016 salary cap between $150 and 153.4 million. Such league projections routinely prove to be conservative; I’d be surprised if the 2016 cap ultimately checks in below $154 million. The Steelers will roll just a hair more than $3 million in unused 2015 space over into 2016; they’ll also pay off another $1.125 million chunk of borrowed 2011-2012 cap space, as they’ve done each of the last two years. Barring unanticipated adjustments, they ought to emerge with a team cap of at least $156 million.
Currently, the team holds 44 players under contract in 2016. After anticipated salary adjustments, including wideout Markus Wheaton having earned the Proven Performance Escalator available in all rookie contracts after the second round, those players consume just over $145 million in space. Reportedly, tackle Mike Adams' contract will also toll, adding him to the 2016 ranks at his 2015 salary of $873,225. Four remaining exclusive rights free agents may be tendered for a combined $1.95 million. Linebacker Terence Garvin may be tendered at the lowest level as a restricted free agent for an estimated $1.657 million. There’s a valid argument against tendering a special teams player at such a figure, but the organization’s tendency has been to issue tenders to almost all eligible RFAs.
Adding all of that to $765,188 in dead money from past cuts, and the Steelers project 50 players under control at a cap cost of about $150.3 million. Their six current draft choices for 2016 would put them over the 51-player threshold at which teams realize offseason cap relief; those picks add $1.45 million in projected charges, after top 51 displacement. Should they receive a late-round compensatory pick — an increasingly unlikely proposition, in the era of teams gaming the formula with bogus option bonuses — the additional cap impact will be negligible.
After all predictable tenders, the team projects at least $4 million under a $156 million team cap, without any veteran cuts or restructures. That’s the best they’ve entered an offseason since the salary cap resumed in 2011. Any veteran cuts will be football and value decisions, not cap necessities. It seems likely that they move on from cornerback Cortez Allen and his $4.4 million salary, at a cap savings of $1.7 million. Chris Boswell’s playoff performance only improved his chance to unseat Shaun Suisham as kicker. Suisham offers paltry cap savings — the $194,000 is less than his roster replacement will cost — but significant cash savings of $2.4 million.
Lawrence Timmons and his unwieldy $15.1 million cap number will undoubtedly draw outside consternation; it’s an outlandish figure for an inside linebacker. Only $8.75 million of that amount is fungible, however, and that’s the only relevant portion to consider. His play down the stretch and leadership probably cemented his roster spot next year, anyway. A short extension is a possibility; something similar to the $21.5 million over three years that David Harris received from the Jets might produce upwards of $5 million in cap savings.
Another subject of debate, at least from the outside, will be tight end Heath Miller. He’s slowing down, but still a credible outlet option; and while Jesse James showed promising development as a rookie, there’s nobody on the roster ready to step in as an obvious starter. I don’t see Miller or his $4 million salary going anywhere. James Harrison may decide to hang it up, but at $1.25 million, the veteran linebacker’s decision doesn’t loom large on the cap. They can afford to keep him as a rotational player, at that figure.
The pending unrestricted free agents aren’t the sexiest bunch, but they’ll be among the first to be addressed. Guard Ramon Foster, defensive tackle Steve McLendon, and cornerback William Gay are starters set to hit the market. None seem likely to field big offers elsewhere, but as the adage goes, it only takes one team. I’d expect mutual interest in all three cases. Gay seems the least likely to depart, given his age, familiarity, and team need at the position. Sean Spence has worked his way back from calamitous injury to fill a valuable reserve linebacker role, and could draw moderate starting money on the open market. He won’t be back with the Steelers at that price range, except in the unlikely event that they move on from Timmons.
Bet on Greg Warren signing another one-year, minimum salary benefit deal. At $1.065 million, he’ll earn in the high end for long snappers, yet at a palatable $680,000 cap charge. Other veterans like safety Will Allen, linemen Doug Legursky and Byron Stingily, running back Jordan Todman, and wideout Darius Heyward-Bey merit consideration for similar contracts. The situations with key reserve defensive backs Robert Golden, Brandon Boykin, and Antwon Blake all bear watching, along with fullback Will Johnson.
Among players entering their final year under contract, guard David DeCastro is a no-brainer for extension. As a young player of premium draft pedigree, and a first-team AP All-Pro selection, he seems poised to become the league’s highest-paid guard. Expect that deal to land in the neighborhood of $9 million a year. Since he’s already hitting the cap at his option year salary of $8.07 million, there’s no cap impediment; Cameron Heyward signed a big extension last offseason under similar circumstances, and so lowered his option year cap hit of $6.969 million to $6.4 million.
All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell once looked similarly assured of a lucrative extension; but if his second straight finish on injured reserve gives the team pause, he might play out 2016 and face the franchise tag in 2017. A wobbly positional market may also prove tricky to navigate. I’d guess, though, so long as his rehab progresses, that they come to terms on a robust extension in the neighborhood of $10 million a year. The Steelers under Kevin Colbert have not shied from inking big extensions with key players coming off of injury, as they have previously with center Maurkice Pouncey and nose tackle Casey Hampton.
Still murkier waters await another injured key starter, left tackle Kelvin Beachum. Alejandro Villanueva performed admirably in his place, has probably not topped out his potential, and comes much cheaper for the next couple of year. On the other hand, Beachum’s injury combined with prior concerns about his size may limit his offers on the open market, and the roster looks undoubtedly better and deeper with both players. A one-year, “prove it” contract in the vicinity of $5-6 million, which pushes Villanueva to a backup role where he can continue his development under coach Mike Munchak — and lands Beachum back on the open market under hopefully better circumstances — merits consideration.
Other final-year players probably won’t be priorities. DeAngelo Williams, Cody Wallace, Matt Spaeth, and Vince Williams are, by virtue of age or role, the sort who can comfortably be allowed to play out their deals. Wheaton might have found himself prioritized on another team, but in Pittsburgh he feels like the next in the seemingly endless pipeline of talented but expendable wideouts.
Should cap space become necessary to accommodate re-signings, or to make a run at a few outside free agents, restructure of existing contracts remains viable. 2016 marks the highest cap charge of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s deal, and a natural restructure point. They could easily free $6 million without over-leveraging the back end of that deal, or push the savings as high as $12 million if they’re so inclined. Heyward’s contract is recent enough to comfortably absorb a $4 to $6 million restructure. Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, and Mike Mitchell offer up to $9.85 million in savings between them; but as all three restructured last offseason, there’s more call for restraint.
The front office must exercise linebacker Jarvis Jones’ fifth-year option by May 3. At a projected salary of $7.2 million, to do so would raise the ire of more than a few fans. But remember, this team not long ago dropped the more expensive and fully-guaranteed transition tag on the only slightly less unspectacular Jason Worilds. I’m not anxious to dedicate $7.2 million to the basically competent former first-rounder, but keep in mind that the option year carries only injury guarantees until the start of the 2017 league year. Injury guarantees, in the overwhelming majority of cases, prove to be meaningless; exercising the option does not mean that he’ll ever play under that salary. It’s a mechanism of contractual control, of preserving — you guessed it — options.
Of course, the best opportunity for offseason drama rests with the contract situation of All-Galaxy wideout Antonio Brown. Signed for two more years at salaries of $6.25 million and $8.71 million, the best receiver in the league pulls down more balls than any of his peers, but only half as much cash. The team soothed his discontent last offseason by pushing $2 million from 2016 into 2015 as part of a cap-saving restructure. But that leaves his 2016 salary that much lower, while his numbers and accolades further pile up. It would be nearly unprecedented for the Steelers to extend a non-quarterback’s contract so early; they haven’t done so since Kimo von Oelhoffen, fourteen years ago. But then, Brown is an unprecedented player, even on a franchise as storied as this one.