Whetstone: Keeping the core

Using hard numbers and some common sense, salary cap wizard Ian Whetstone looks beyond the San Diego Chargers and into the Steelers' near future. Who'll wear the black-and-gold in 2007? In 2008? Ian has the answers ...

The recently extended collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the Player's Association anticipates a 2007 salary cap of $109 million. As of right now, the Pittsburgh Steelers have 43 players under contract through 2007 at a total cap cost, by my numbers, of about $105 million.

Will $4 million in cap room be enough to not only sign rookies and fill out a 53-man roster, but also extend key young players? With the right moves — and the Steelers organization has historically made more than its share — it should be.

That $105 million will see some likely additions: the cap cost to sign rookies depends heavily on draft position, but a liberal estimate to add rookies, undrafted free agents, and practice squadders, to tender exclusive rights free agents, and to pay standard workout bonuses should fall in the $5 million range; Ben Roethlisberger's cap figure will increase when some number of incentives become likely to be earned, probably in the neighborhood of another $3 million; and Max Starks, the team's only notable restricted free agent, should be tendered at the low or middle RFA figure depending upon the level of protection the organization wants.

The new CBA purportedly increases the RFA tenders significantly, though the specific dollar assignments won't be known until next off-season. With two line-hungry and bonus-happy teams within the AFC North that would love to simultaneously strengthen their own rosters and weaken the Steelers at a cost of a mere third-round pick, I'll assume that Starks' tender could amount to another $3 million, placing the Steelers at about $9 million over the projected cap.

That $9 million will have come from somewhere. Barring a Travolta-esque career revival, Duce Staley will be an easy cut at a cap savings of $1,518,750. It seems unlikely that both Jeff Hartings and Chukky Okobi will stick around at such hefty cap figures, and I'm guessing that it's Okobi who moves on, saving another $1,292,500.

The Steelers have made room in recent years through simple restructures of recently-extended young players, converting base salary into prorated bonus money. Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel, and Willie Parker all fit that mold, and such restructures of those three would push $4,720,830 into later years.

Aaron Smith's recent restructure bloats his 2007 cap hit to a team-high $6,860,666, and hints that the Steelers consider him a strong candidate for extension next off-season so as to lower that figure. It makes sense given how well Kimo von Oelhoffen played the position into his mid-thirties, how consistently Smith has performed to this point, and the lack of DE depth on the roster.

Smith has never been naïve about his value; he played hardball in 2002 and wound up with a more lucrative deal than Joey Porter had received not long before playing a more glamorous position. A four-year, $18 million deal with $5 million guaranteed feels like what it will take to get him extended unless he's exceptionally generous. Such a deal would lower his 2007 hit by about $2.5 million.

As good offensive linemen often play longer than other positions, Alan Faneca might also see a third contract in Pittsburgh. At similar numbers to Smith, his $6,056,083 cap hit could be lowered by about $2.3 million.

The third of the big three veterans entering his final contract year might find himself the odd man out; Joey Porter's game relies on speed and athleticism, and dicey investments in 30 year-old linebackers aren't what maintain championship rosters.

I'm skeptical that Porter would stage a legitimate holdout, either, with $5 million of his $22.5 million contract due in 2007. Maybe to the chagrin of Porter disparagers and supporters alike, I think that he'll quietly play out his contract and finish his career elsewhere. (Well, relatively quietly … we are talking about Peezy.)

With both Porter and Clark Haggans set to become unrestricted free agents after next season, both looking at the wrong side of thirty at that time, and James Harrison the only other OLB on the roster with any kind of track record, it looks like the position in the most flux. Long term answers lie in the next two drafts, when the team should try to inject some premium talent at a position that hasn't received any in quite a while.

Higher RFA tenders should make the team all the more eager to sign Max Starks to a long-term deal. Looking at recent extensions for starting tackles like Shane Olivea, a five-year, $17.5 million deal with a $4.5 million signing bonus feels about right. That kind of deal would shave off half of a $3 million cap hit and lock up an important young player through 2011.

Troy Polamalu's contract situation will undoubtedly grab headlines; if the Taylor negotiations caused Steeler fans' hair to fall out, buy stock in Avacore before Omar Khan sits down with one of the league's most dynamic young defenders. But, like all important contract matters in Pittsburgh, the deal will get done after much fan consternation, hand-wringing, and premature glee from rival fans.

My guess is that the Mane Man signs for considerably fewer guaranteed dollars than Ed Reed, Roy Williams, or Adam Archuleta recently commanded, especially after fellow DB Taylor took well below market to stay in Pittsburgh; I'll ballpark it at $24 million over five years with $6.5 million to sign, increasing his 2007 cap hit by about $800,000.

Fans and media may anticipate a long-term extension for Ben Roethlisberger after this season, but with a 2007 cap charge likely under $5 million and three more seasons under contract, I'm guessing that they won't look to extend him until his $2.25 million roster bonus comes due in 2008. He'll certainly become the highest-paid Steeler in history — provided that his off-season accidents don't escalate to, say, crashing a zeppelin into Mount Washington while undergoing an emergency kidney transplant — but he may have to wait a little longer for his big deal. Keep an eye out for Jacksonville's negotiations with Byron Leftwich; that could well set the floor for a Roethlisberger extension.

These moves in total would situate the Steelers at about $107 million against the cap, with $2 million clear for in-season maneuvers and injury replacements. Moreover, they'd be positioned for 2008 with 28 current players under contract (that's not counting two years' worth of draftees) at a cap cost of about $87 million, with several more players under control via restricted free agency, a young core locked up long term, and a nice group of veterans still able to contribute.

There will be other moves, certainly; the contract situations of Cedrick Wilson, Travis Kirschke, Chris Gardocki, Kendall Simmons, Dan Kreider, and Chris Hoke may need to be addressed in one way or another, and some bargain free agents will find a home with the Steelers. But to whatever degree we might predict the futures of football players, Pittsburgh's roster should stay competitive, with positions other than linebacker stocked with a decent mix of proven and potential talent for the near future.

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