Money Matters: The Early Off-Season

As the Steelers shift gears from post-season contention into off-season preparation, a full year's worth of roster moves and player performances help to firm up the shape of their cap position and roster needs heading into the pre-free agency, pre-draft period.

Not a whole lot has changed with regard to their salary cap outlook since October. That's not surprising, since the organization as a matter of policy doesn't negotiate contracts in-season. As of this writing, Pittsburgh maintains 56 players under contract for 2008 at a total cap cost right around $103 million, against an anticipated salary cap of $116 million.

They'll add many more players to the off-season roster, but only the top 51 base salaries will be counted against their cap until September. Likely restricted free agent tenders of $927,000 for Trai Essex, Andre Frazier, Chris Kemoeatu, and Greg Warren, plus a $1,417,000 tender for Nate Washington, will impact the cap for an additional $3,650,000, as they'll displace $1,475,000 in low-end salaries.

With probably six draft picks around the 24th slot, Pittsburgh should be given a rookie salary pool in the neighborhood of $3.3 million, of which about $1.5 million will impact the cap. The number of picks and allotted salary pool could very well change as the team trades picks on draft day, but absent the unlikely scenario of trading veteran players for more picks, the rookie cap impact should remain around $1.5 million. They'll need to reserve about another $1 million for the eight-man practice squad and standard off-season workout bonuses.

The remaining cap dollars stand to be adjusted by the annual correction made for player incentives earned compared to those that were expected to be earned. In 2007, the Steelers lost a surprising $2,678,769 to this correction on the heels of a lackluster 2006 campaign. The lion's share of that figure, though, stemmed from Willie Parker's rise from modest beginnings to Pro Bowl performance, and a large playing-time incentive earned by first-round rookie Santonio Holmes. Parker again played at a Pro Bowl level in 2007, but not at any greater statistical clip than previously, and this year's top rookie, Lawrence Timmons, almost certainly fell short of the playing-time thresholds to earn his big bonus.

On the other hand, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger earned a nice chunk of extra cheese for his Pro Bowl year: $300,000 for each of his top five finishes in passer rating and touchdown passes, $500,000 for earning the trip to Hawaii, $975,000 for playing time on a playoff team. Not only will those incentives now become "likely to be earned" in 2008, pushing Roethlisberger's cap figure to a team high $7-8 million, but the difference of about $1.3 million compared to what had been deemed likely will come off the cap in the incentive adjustment.

All told, it leaves the Steelers about $6 million for their off-season business. That may not sound like much, but it's more than they've entered an off-season with in years. A lot of contract can be stuffed into $6 million in cap room, and if it's not enough, they've got options to generate more. Cornerback Ike Taylor's contract seems ready-made for a simple restructure this year, at its peak cap hit of $5.74 million; they could easily pare $2 million off of that figure without pushing his remaining cap numbers much higher than this year's expected mark. RFAs Washington and Warren may present cases for modest extensions, saving modest cap dollars. The combination of Jerame Tuman's health, position on the depth chart, and $1.4 million salary could push him off of the roster. I'm in no hurry to see Cedrick Wilson gone, but a rookie could threaten his fourth-receiver role and $2,085,000 salary.

First order of business, of course, will be a new contract for Roethlisberger, and all eyes of the Steeler Nation will be upon the situation until pen hits paper. The team will almost certainly push hard to get it done before his $2.95 million roster bonus comes due in early March, so fans may actually see some relief much sooner than with similar anxiety-inducing negotiations with Taylor, Hines Ward, and Troy Polamalu in recent years. The bad news is that Roethlisberger will cost a boatload of money to extend; the good news is that with a $7-8 million cap number, more than $6 million of which is fungible, any new deal could easily be constructed to fit within a similar '08 cap figure.

Then, there's the Alan Faneca situation. Roethlisberger wants him back, the team certainly wants him back, and all indications say that, everything being equal, he'd rather stick around. The organization finds itself in a much less favorable negotiating position than it was a year ago, however, and the call of the open market may prove too much to overcome. If they do work something out, it won't be at any bargain rate; I'd bank on something like $36 million over five years—making Faneca the league's highest-paid guard by a smidgeon over Dallas's Leonard Davis—with at least $24 million paid out over the first three years. Contracts can be structured keep early cap hits surprisingly low, but common sense says that you don't push too much cap money into the back end of a contract for a 31-year-old guard. I'd expect a first-year cap hit on any such deal to run around $4 million, and impact the cap for a few hundred thousand less.

Any talk about a long-term extension for tackle Max Starks feels funny, to me. How did riding the bench for most of the year make him suddenly more desirable? Why an extension this year, after minimal playing time and with much lesser leverage on the team's part, rather than last year? Starks won't command top-end left tackle money, even in the current bloated market and with little competition, but he stands to pull in similar money to $5 million-a-year men Tony Pashos and Langston Walker. It would probably mean a more forgiving first-year cap hit than a Faneca deal, at around $2.5 million.

Beyond those potential moves, they've got all of free agency to consider, and they can afford to get as competitive for any individual player or two as they want. Top-end free agents probably mean a first-year cap hit of $3-4 million; middle-tier guys fall around $1.5-2.5 million; bargains come in at closer to $1 million in cap impact. Those numbers could be mixed and matched lots of ways to bring in help for the 2008 Steelers; it comes down to the front office finding the right guys and working out the right price.

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