Money Matters: A Satisfying Offseason

Flash back to late March. There's Kevin Colbert and his staff, furiously preparing for the draft in a Super Bowl-shortened offseason, and facing a list of 2010 free agents a mile long. SCI's Ian Whetstone provides an in-depth look at how it all shook out.

No fewer than half of Pittsburgh's championship starters stood to become unrestricted free agents in a year's time, including lynchpins like Hines Ward, Heath Miller, and Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison.

For whichever moves he chose to make, Colbert had at his disposal about $4 million in salary cap space. But, more than that $4 million would eventually be required for offseason workout bonuses, the signing of draft picks, the practice squad, and in-season replacement players and earned incentives, so any move that borrowed those cap dollars would require more work to recover the same amount… just to get back to the problem of not quite having enough space for routine business.

On top of that, there existed quite the potential for cash flow shortages, with ownership in flux and $19 million in new and deferred bonus payments made to franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger since January. Add a dose of looming labor uncertainty, and many factors pointed to a rocky offseason for the defending champs.

Except, of course, that they know what they're doing. In what should come as no big surprise, camp opens with every draft pick under contract and shiny new extensions for Ward, Miller, Harrison, and Max Starks. Depth and age situations along the lines and in the secondary have been addressed, if maybe not yet quite solved.

Colbert accomplished all of this without falling into the common traps. He didn't leverage cap dollars irresponsibly out over future voidable years, like Washington, Oakland, and Carolina chose to do to alleviate their shortfalls. He didn't gut the roster of productive veterans just to get younger and cheaper, losing only Larry Foote to what might be called a "cap cut." He didn't throw money at Starks to make his franchise tag go away, like Baltimore, Oakland, and Indianapolis did with their tagged players.

The Starks contract was probably Colbert's biggest off-season success. With lots of leverage on the player's side, and lots of reasons to want to make something happen, Colbert's camp never lost sight of its own valuation of Starks as a player, and ultimately brought him in for less than the $7 million a year that mediocre tackles like Vernon Carey and Stacy Andrews recently landed.

Starks got some value of his own on the four-year deal, with a decent portion of the money paid in the early years, and a shot at another contract when he's 30 or 31. He was willing to work past what had been at times a contentious situation with the coaching staff. It helps that they win. It helps that they win with players who want to keep winning, like Hines Ward, who took a modest cut in his rate of pay for a chance to play his entire career in black and gold.

Cap savings from the Starks and Ward deals totaled about $5 million; the departure of Foote and a nip/tuck of Ike Taylor's contract saved almost another $3 million, and standard league adjustments added nearly another million to every team's allotment. The savings made it possible to absorb the $4 million added by Harrison's well-deserved extension.

The Harrison contract should be cast in bronze as an example of compromise by both parties. It features a considerable raise over his previous deal at better than five times the annual salary, and pays him more than any other defensive player in Steelers history. But, it ventures nowhere near the insanity of contracts given out to defensive players like Dwight Freeney, Nnamdi Asomugha, or Albert Haynesworth. The last time I checked, none of those guys were selected by the AP as the best defensive player in football, and between them they've got half as many rings as the two adorning Harrison's fingers.

Terrell Suggs also plays a 3-4 OLB ‘tweener position. He's plenty good, but I think few would contend that he has made the impact that James Harrison has over the last two seasons, and Baltimore shelled out nearly twice as much in guaranteed dollars to lock up their guy for the same six years. Now, Suggs is a few years younger, comes from a more desirable draft pedigree, and had better leverage from his existing contract, so it was probably to be expected that he would top Harrison's deal. But, the Artist Formerly Known as Silverback will have to play at least five years of his new contract to match the $40 million that Suggs gets in just two years of his new deal.

After the tribulations of the Harrison and Starks negotiations, a new contract for a young, core player like Heath Miller seemed like a no-brainer, and Colbert put that cherry on top just as camp is about to open. Miller exemplifies the type the player that they've consistently re-signed in Pittsburgh this decade, and speculation that he might be allowed to leave in free agency seemed well off the mark.

Details of the Miller contract are still murky, but the likely impact of an additional $3 million or so in cap dollars should leave about $5 million available, just enough for the season's work. And if they need a little more for any additional deals—they've retained the core, but six projected starters still stand to hit free agency after 2009—can anyone doubt at this point that they'll find a reasonable way to make it?

All of these moves, whether they cost or saved against the cap, required cash expenditures for signing bonuses. Ownership stepped up, with nearly $40 million in new 2009 off-season commitments between just the big four re-signings, plus millions more to retain guard Chris Kemoeatu and a smattering of smaller contributors. Whatever financial concerns may be weighing upon the ownership situation, they clearly didn't interfere with football operations.

That should come as no surprise, either.

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