Trimming the cap will come first

Steelers head coach Bill Cowher set the table for what should be a busy couple of months Tuesday as he admitted the team will have to start trimming players starting this month to get under the 2004 salary cap.

The Steelers currently sit just over $2 million over next season's $78.1-million cap and must be under that total by the time free agency begins March 3.

That means at least one veteran, and more likely two, will be released before that time.

But because the Steelers can save money against this year's cap by waiting until after June 1 to release players with more than one year remaining on their contract, it stands to figure linebacker Jason Gildon and running back Jerome Bettis may be safe for the time being. Both have three years left on their deals, and more importantly, more than $3 million in signing bonuses.

Those hits would be awfully tough to swallow all in one season.

Instead, look for Amos Zereoue and his $2.2-million salary to be sent packing along with offensive tackle Oliver Ross and his $1.75-million package.

That would save the Steelers $3.95-million in salary, minus the $1.4-million in prorated signing bonus money that would be counted against this year's cap.

The Steelers will also explore cutting Bettis' 2004 salary in an effort to soften the blow of his outright release. Bettis is due $3.6 million, but has $3 million in signing bonus money that would count against the Steelers cap this season if he is released before June 1.

The hit for Gildon is even higher, as he has $3.9 million in bonus money remaining in addition to his $3.65-million salary. Unlike Bettis, however, the team will not explore bringing Gildon, the Steelers' all-time leading sacker, back at a reduced salary.

Other veterans on the chopping block include tight end Mark Bruener ($2.35-million base salary, $1.8 million in signing bonus), cornerback Dewayne Washington ($3.75 million and $2 million) and cornerback Chad Scott ($3.885 million and $2.7 million).

Of those players, Scott is the least likely to be released. He has three remaining seasons on his contract, though the team would no doubt like to knock down that $3.885-million base salary to a more manageable figure.

One wild card that may help them do that is Terry Fair, signed a couple of weeks ago. A former No. 1 draft pick, Fair was out of football last season after a couple of injury-plagued seasons in Detroit and Carolina. If the 27-year-old Fair shows he can still play, it could give the team leverage with Scott.

"We signed him early enough where he can get involved in understanding this defense and he will have an opportunity on the field," Cowher said of Fair. "We will find out when we get to Latrobe. It was hard to pass up. Not to be able to sign a guy who is still young and has shown ability, but has had some injuries."

In other news, Cowher made it very apparent he expects offensive tackle Marvel Smith to return to Pittsburgh next week at 100 percent after Smith missed more than half of last season because of a pinched nerve in his neck.

The Steelers are counting on Smith to be their left tackle in 2004, which is why his health is so important. If they get Smith to town next week and his physical isn't as good as Cowher let on Tuesday, it may push them to attempt to sign a left tackle in free agency. That would be far more costly than taking an offensive tackle in the first couple of rounds of the draft.

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