Money matters on cutdown date

The Steelers must cut to 75 by Tuesday afternoon and the size of player contracts may play a role in their thinking. Ian Whetstone sifts through the numbers and offers examples of cost-cutting moves the team might make.

As we approach the time of NFL roster trimming, general managers around the league may be looking at player contracts as contributory considerations in determining who will get a visit from the Turk. Cutting a player after June 1 with a lot of bonus money yet to be counted against the cap provides only a temporary reprieve; the dead money in the subsequent season can eat a substantial portion of the total cap, as the bookkeepers for the Redskins and the 49ers can well attest. The best candidates for salary cuts are those players with higher salaries than their production merits (or for whom a cheaper replacement is available) without a lot of outstanding bonus proration.

Not surprisingly, coming off of a Super Bowl championship the Pittsburgh Steelers employ few players at high salaries who aren't producing on the field. The ten highest-salaried players on the roster—Aaron Smith ($4.5 million), Marvel Smith ($4.4 million), Joey Porter ($3.85 million), Alan Faneca ($3.7 million), Casey Hampton ($3.25 million), James Farrior ($2.9 million), Hines Ward ($2.75 million), Clark Haggans ($2.2 million), Jeff Hartings ($2.2 million), and Larry Foote ($2.175 million)—all earn their keep, with eight of the ten having made a free trip to Hawaii within the past two seasons.

There's little financial incentive to either cut or keep an individual player during his rookie deal unless his low salary displaces an expensive vet; only first-rounders make enough salary that a cut could result in significant savings, and only first- and high second-rounders get enough bonus money that cutting them can be prohibitive in cap terms. Ricardo Colclough may disappoint as a cornerback, but his contract specifics grant him an almost automatic spot. He'll cost $1,031,562 against the cap to keep, or $606,562 if cut (plus $250,725 in dead money next season); that's an insubstantial enough difference that it's probably better value to keep him even if his contributions are limited to dime duty and special teams.

A category of players who should be fairly safe are those who received signing bonuses during the most recent off-season. The Pittsburgh players to whom this most directly applies are Clint Kriewaldt and Chukky Okobi. Kriewaldt faces little danger of losing his roster spot—he's the special teams captain and showed himself to be a competent backup linebacker when Farrior missed time in 2005—but the fact that the Rooneys just cut him an $800,000 check to stick around really cements his name in the program.

Okobi finds himself in a murkier situation, with his recent signing bonus as much a function of cap maneuvering as it was a show of confidence in his place on the team. By converting $1.415 million of Okobi's $2 million salary to a guaranteed bonus, the Steelers lessened their 2006 cap commitment to the center position which would be the highest in the league based just on Hartings' $6,454,166 figure. Kriewaldt was a free agent, so his signing showed a more proactive desire to keep him around than Okobi's cap-motivated restructuring. The $1,338,583 in dead money in 2007 isn't so prohibitive that Okobi's roster spot is completely safe. Still, I don't see the organization writing a check back in March for $1.415 million to a guy with whom they could have cut ties for a mere $554,666 cap charge (and no additional payout) unless they felt solid about his place on the team for at least one more year.

The players in the most danger of losing their roster spots to cheaper replacements are probably punter Chris Gardocki and running back Duce Staley. Gardocki's $1,088,750 salary is fourth-highest among punters around the league, and a number that considerably outstrips his 2005 regular season performance. He came up big in the postseason, but that only carries so much weight. Keeping Mike Barr at $275,000 in his place would free $813,750 in 2006 cap dollars for injury replacements throughout the year, and keep that same amount in the Rooneys' pockets. The team could manage the resultant $425,000 in dead money against the 2007 cap; if Barr stuck around at a second-year minimum $360,000 salary, the combined $785,000 in cap dollars would still significantly undercut Gardocki's $1,301,250 figure if he's still the Steelers' punter in 2007. Gardocki's contract not only no longer protects his roster spot, it provides incentive for the Steelers to keep Barr instead.

Staley's hold on a roster spot seems precarious after a lackluster training camp and preseason, especially considering that he'll count at least $2,171,250 against the salary cap if he's on the roster for the opening game. He agreed to a restructured contract in the off-season that included a legitimate pay cut, with his salary reduced from $2.5 million to $1 million with the opportunity to recoup up to $900,000 through various incentives. He'll count $1,171,250 against the 2006 cap if he's cut, and would generate $2,342,500 in dead money in 2007. Given that 2006 is likely at best his last year with the Steelers, the 2007 dead money seems inevitable and should be less of a consideration than his dead legs. To keep either Cedric Humes or John Kuhn in Staley's place would save the team $725,000 and generate no more dead money against the 2007 cap than if Staley were released after the 2006 season. None of the three look great on the field, so cheap mediocrity may win the day.

A few veterans making minimal salaries could feel younger players nipping at their heels. Rookie Willie Colon should replace Barrett Brooks, but the measly $150,000 saved against the cap and more robust $535,000 saved in the Rooneys' wallets have less to do with that than Brooks's lackluster play. On the other hand, Mike Logan's stellar training camp should hold off youngsters like Anthony Madison and Mike Lorello despite the potential for similar savings. Quincy Morgan and Sean Morey seem to be battling for a roster spot not against younger, cheaper receivers, but against additional players at other positions. All else being equal, the few hundred thousand in savings could be a reason to keep a third tight end or an extra DB over a sixth or seventh receiver.

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