Money Matters: Not an Either/Or Proposition

So, the Steelers simply can't afford to pay their Big Three pending free agents - Alan Faneca, Troy Polamalu, and Ben Roethlisberger? Not so says SCI's salary cap guru. Read on as Ian Whetsone sets the record straight.

It seems to have become a matter of common knowledge with fans that among the hurdles between the Steelers organization and a big-money extension for All-Pro guard Alan Faneca is the need to preserve available cap space for other, younger players. All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger head the list of young guns approaching the time for that big second contract, and every dollar spent on Faneca becomes a dollar unavailable for locking up those key players. Or is it?

As anyone who has ever spent five minutes trying to figure the thing out probably realizes, the salary cap just isn't that simple. After having released punter Chris Gardocki, the Steelers sit right around $2 million under the $109 million cap for 2007. That may fall near the bottom of the league in terms of available space, but it's enough to meet their needs.

Fitting a new contract under the salary cap is seldom a problem in the first year of the deal, particularly for a veteran player in the last year of an existing deal. Very often, a low base salary and large signing bonus will actually reduce the player's cap hit in the first year. In the case of Faneca, reducing his scheduled $3.375 million base salary to the minimum $720,000 would accommodate a signing bonus on a five-year deal of up to $13.275 million without increasing his 2007 cap charge. The last year of Polamalu's rookie contract pays out $2.81 million in salary and reporting bonuses, and a reduction to the minimum $595,000 base salary would allow up to a $13.29 million signing bonus without increasing the 2007 cap hit.

So, there's no need for the Steelers to free major cap space in order to fit those potential extensions under this year's cap. The $2 million available will nearly suffice for signing this year's rookie class—last year's class consumed about $1.34 million in additional space, and this year's won't take a whole lot more than that—and stocking the practice squad at a cost of about $560,000. They'll likely need another million or two before the season starts to accommodate a couple of extra minimum salaries and players on injured reserve, and to allow for injury replacements throughout the year; but that kind of cap room can readily be created, and another veteran like Gardocki could be released before then, anyway.

If this year's cap space isn't an issue, next year's is even less so. For the first time in quite a while, the Steelers will enter an off-season with significant available cap room. Ignoring undrafted free agents with little chance to make the roster, they've currently got 30 players under contract for 2008 at a total cost of about $79 million against a salary cap that will fall in the range of $116 million. If the three significant restricted free agents—Trai Essex, Chris Kemoeatu, and Rian Wallace—all were to receive tender offers at the second-round level, that would consume another $4.3 million. Rookies from this year's and next year's draft classes might add another eight players at a cap cost, estimating quite liberally, of $8 million.

That would put the roster at 41 players for $91.3 million in cap cost. Even if Pittsburgh made Polamalu the highest-paid safety in the league at $6 million per year and Faneca the highest-paid guard at $7.1 million per year, and even if the structures of the deals resulted in second-year cap hits in line with those annual averages, they'd still be left with more than $11 million with which to fill out the bottom ten roster spots. It wouldn't take $11 million to fill out the bottom of the roster by any stretch; that would be space enough to extend Roethlisberger and even dip into free agency besides.

The years beyond 2008 sit still more wide open, with only 17 players currently under contract in 2009 and only four in 2010. Those rosters have yet to shaped; the decisions regarding which players get extensions this year and next will go a long way toward doing so.

There simply is no direct relationship between the ability of the organization to navigate each the "big three" contract situations that lay before them. It comes down to how much they're willing to pay for these players at their positions—what is a 30-year-old All-Pro guard worth, or a young All-Pro safety, or a franchise quarterback?—and whether their valuation meets an agreeable compensation level for the players and their agents. Whether the Steelers want to pay Alan Faneca the new going rate for guards may be in question, but their ability to do so and still extend their young studs is not.


Steel City Insider Top Stories

\r\n\r\n\r\nIt seems to have become a matter of common knowledge with fans that among the hurdles between the Steelers organization and a big-money extension for All-Pro guard Alan Faneca is the need to preserve available cap space for other, younger players. All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger head the list of young guns approaching the time for that big second contract, and every dollar spent on Faneca becomes a dollar unavailable for locking up those key players. Or is it?\r\n

\r\nAs anyone who has ever spent five minutes trying to figure the thing out probably realizes, the salary cap just isn't that simple. After having released punter Chris Gardocki, the Steelers sit right around $2 million under the $109 million cap for 2007. That may fall near the bottom of the league in terms of available space, but it's enough to meet their needs.\r\n

\r\nFitting a new contract under the salary cap is seldom a problem in the first year of the deal, particularly for a veteran player in the last year of an existing deal. Very often, a low base salary and large signing bonus will actually reduce the player's cap hit in the first year. In the case of Faneca, reducing his scheduled $3.375 million base salary to the minimum $720,000 would accommodate a signing bonus on a five-year deal of up to $13.275 million without increasing his 2007 cap charge. The last year of Polamalu's rookie contract pays out $2.81 million in salary and reporting bonuses, and a reduction to the minimum $595,000 base salary would allow up to a $13.29 million signing bonus without increasing the 2007 cap hit.\r\n

\r\nSo, there's no need for the Steelers to free major cap space in order to fit those potential extensions under this year's cap. The $2 million available will nearly suffice for signing this year's rookie class—last year's class consumed about $1.34 million in additional space, and this year's won't take a whole lot more than that—and stocking the practice squad at a cost of about $560,000. They'll likely need another million or two before the season starts to accommodate a couple of extra minimum salaries and players on injured reserve, and to allow for injury replacements throughout the year; but that kind of cap room can readily be created, and another veteran like Gardocki could be released before then, anyway.\r\n

\r\nIf this year's cap space isn't an issue, next year's is even less so. For the first time in quite a while, the Steelers will enter an off-season with significant available cap room. Ignoring undrafted free agents with little chance to make the roster, they've currently got 30 players under contract for 2008 at a total cost of about $79 million against a salary cap that will fall in the range of $116 million. If the three significant restricted free agents—Trai Essex, Chris Kemoeatu, and Rian Wallace—all were to receive tender offers at the second-round level, that would consume another $4.3 million. Rookies from this year's and next year's draft classes might add another eight players at a cap cost, estimating quite liberally, of $8 million.\r\n

\r\nThat would put the roster at 41 players for $91.3 million in cap cost. Even if Pittsburgh made Polamalu the highest-paid safety in the league at $6 million per year and Faneca the highest-paid guard at $7.1 million per year, and even if the structures of the deals resulted in second-year cap hits in line with those annual averages, they'd still be left with more than $11 million with which to fill out the bottom ten roster spots. It wouldn't take $11 million to fill out the bottom of the roster by any stretch; that would be space enough to extend Roethlisberger and even dip into free agency besides.\r\n

\r\nThe years beyond 2008 sit still more wide open, with only 17 players currently under contract in 2009 and only four in 2010. Those rosters have yet to shaped; the decisions regarding which players get extensions this year and next will go a long way toward doing so.\r\n

\r\nThere simply is no direct relationship between the ability of the organization to navigate each the \"big three\" contract situations that lay before them. It comes down to how much they're willing to pay for these players at their positions—what is a 30-year-old All-Pro guard worth, or a young All-Pro safety, or a franchise quarterback?—and whether their valuation meets an agreeable compensation level for the players and their agents. Whether the Steelers want to pay Alan Faneca the new going rate for guards may be in question, but their ability to do so and still extend their young studs is not.\r\n

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