The Steelers on Tuesday made their first move in preparations for the upcoming free agent period at the end of the week by signing defensive end Aaron Smith to a five-year contract extension worth $25 million.
The deal, the largest ever given out by the team, will keep the eight-year NFL veteran with the Steelers through 2011. The 6-5, 298-pound Smith was scheduled to earn $4.5 million in salary in 2007. He was also scheduled to receive a $1 million roster bonus at the beginning of March.
But it's likely the new deal will lower Smith's 2007 base salary dramatically while also turning that $1 million bonus into a signing bonus that can be extended over the length of his new deal.
Such a move could free up at least $2 million from the team's $109 million salary cap for 2007, putting the Steelers roughly $5 million under the cap heading into free agency.
The Steelers have just one starter – right tackle Max Starks – who is elligible to be a free agent when the signing period opens March 2. But the team can retain the rights to match any offers for Starks, a restricted free agent, by making him a qualifying offer by Thursday.
Smith's signing also frees up some needed space for the Steelers to pay other roster bonuses due in March, including the $1 million bonuses that linebacker Joey Porter and guard Alan Faneca are scheduled to receive. Other players due roster bonuses include cornerback Ike Taylor, who will receive $300,000, and left tackle Marvel Smith and running back Willie Parker, both of whom are due $250,000.
Aaron Smith, who turns 31 April 9, was a fourth-round draft pick of the Steelers in 1999. He has played in 115 consecutive games and had 61 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2006.
Widely regarded as one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL, Smith was a Pro Bowl pick in 2004 when he led the Steelers with eight sacks. Smith's 34 career sacks currently rank 11th on the Steelers' all-time list.