The Pittsburgh Steelers approach the 2017 offseason with, on the surface, a more favorable salary cap situation than they have enjoyed in many years. In fact, they currently project more free space than they have at this point in any offseason in the 23 years of the salary cap era. The 2017 salary cap has not been officially determined, but given league projections and historical trends, it’s likely to land near $168 million. With just under $136.5 million in cap commitments towards 53 signed players as of this writing, an ample cushion remains for necessary offseason work.
I wouldn’t start salivating over ways to spend the $31 million just yet, though. Predictable expenditures will consume much of it. The practical free space, while still more ample than they’ve ever enjoyed, is considerably lower. They’ll receive a bump of more than $3 million from carryover of unused 2016 space, but they’ll also pay back the remaining $1 million that was borrowed in 2011 and 2012 against future caps. Like every team, they’ll carry a $619,200 hold to account for standard offseason workout bonuses.
A few exclusive rights free agents have already signed one-year contracts, and further such deals seem likely for Alejandro Villanueva, Chris Boswell, Anthony Chickillo, Xavier Grimble, B.J. Finney, and Fitzgerald Toussaint. These deals have minimal impact—only $825,000, for these six combined—given the Rule of 51 that lowers the cap impact of offseason signings beyond the top 51 contracts.
Restricted free agents have grown less common under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, but the Steelers must make decisions on tenders for Ross Cockrell and Chris Hubbard. Hubbard may go untendered, given that even the lowest RFA tender will have inflated to about $1.8 million. They could retain him at a lower rate, if he’s agreeable. Cockrell’s status as a starting player all but assures at least that level, which would require a fourth-round pick as compensation by any team wishing to sign him away. I would not be surprised to see the Steelers bolster Cockrell’s tender to the second-round level, or about $2.8 million.
The big move, of course, will be a likely franchise tag for Le’Veon Bell, which should fall around $12.4 million. (An extension for Antonio Brown will be another major offseason topic, but given his existing salary, it’s likely to be close to cap-neutral.) I’d been wary of the prospect of tagging Bell, fearing that it stood to drive up his leverage more than restrict it; but his performance since returning from suspension probably pushed that leverage beyond the tag tipping point, anyway. I don’t believe that the Steelers will issue a tag without a legitimate intent to work a long-term deal prior to the resulting deadline. I expect this long-term deal to fall in the same $12-12.5 million vicinity per year as the tag, which would represent quite a revitalization of the floundering market for running backs. An extension would almost certainly reduce the 2017 cap hit, but they’ll need to prepare to carry the full franchise tag amount deep into the offseason.
These moves leave about $18 million for discretionary spending. Quite a lot of new contract dollars can be packed into that amount of cap space. Some portion will go toward extension and retention of current players with expiring or soon-to-expire contracts. The most prominent young player in line for extension of his rookie contract is Stephon Tuitt. His play anchoring the defensive line after Cam Heyward’s injury could put him in line for an extension that exceeds even his linemate’s $10.5 million average, given the two years of cap inflation since. The 2017 impact of such an extension should be much less, but will eat into the available $18 million.
Pending free agent Lawrence Timmons poses something of a dilemma, still. His overall high-level play continued in 2016, but so did the potential for unfavorable mismatches in coverage. He’s a year older than he was last offseason, when they couldn’t agree on an extension value. Two clear comparables exist in David Harris and Derrick Johnson, and if as I expect the Steelers do come to an agreement to retain Timmons, the $7 million averages of their contracts should provide a framework.
Given his age, it might seem that the status of James Harrison poses an even greater dilemma. But Harrison did not sound like a man ready to retire after the playoff loss to the Patriots, and it feels inevitable that as long as he wants to keep playing, they’ll settle on a palatable dollar amount for a one or two-year deal. Long snapper (and one of only three active Steelers with two Super Bowl rings) Greg Warren will almost certainly return on his fifth consecutive one-year minimum salary benefit contract, offering him $1.08 million in compensation but counting only $695,000 against the cap.
One position in which the Steelers have reliably invested in the Kevin Colbert era has been a backup rotational defensive lineman, from Chris Sullivan to Travis Kirschke, through Chris Hoke and Cam Thomas. Ricardo Mathews may have played himself into that tradition, and I will not be surprised if he’s retained on a multi-year deal in the neighborhood of $2 million annually.
Fan opinions of Landry Jones as a backup quarterback seems to be decidedly split, but his play has been competent enough, given his experience in the system and paucity at the position league-wide, to command a modest payday. A three-year deal for $5-6 million, in the same neighborhood as the team paid for Bruce Gradkowski four years ago (but well below the upper levels of the backup QB market), feels about right.
I doubt that Jarvis Jones’ professional career is at an end, but his tenure in Pittsburgh probably is. There’s exceedingly little tradition of underwhelming first-round picks remaining with their drafting teams on low-level contracts. The unfortunate timing of Markus Wheaton’s injury-plagued season leaves him in a kind of contract limbo, and he may need to take a one-year “prove it” deal to earn his way back to a favorable free agency in 2018. While I wouldn’t entirely rule out such a deal with Pittsburgh, I’ll guess that he looks for an opportunity for more frequent targets. Other pending free agents feel like the minimum salary variety.
This still leaves room for an outside free agent or two, even factoring for later need for about $2 million to sign the rookie class, $1.2 million for a practice squad, and reserve space for injuries. I won’t expect drastic changes from their established practices, though. It would be surprising to see them chase big names with the stupid money that flows early in free agency. One or two additions along the lines of Ladarius Green last year or Mike Mitchell three years ago, both $5 million annual contracts, could be readily accommodated. It will depend, as always, on the right intersection of player availability and price.
(To see Whetstone's complete breakdown of the Steelers' salary structure, or to ask him any questions, go to the South Side message board. Ian can also be reached at his Twitter feed @IanWhetstone.)