With the releases of CB Bryant McFadden and WR Arnaz Battle, the Steelers are taking their first steps toward getting their top 51 players under the salary cap by the start of the 2012 league season - March 13.
Other moves will certainly be coming, but there are several options the team could pursue by that date.
In part I of this two part series, we'll dive into the looming cuts expected within the roster, and some projections for restricted free agency.
There are two choices, both between the team and Aaron Smith. After an outstanding career in Pittsburgh, Smith could decide to hang them up. The team would then eat the remaining balance of his contract, but not the whole thing, and save around $1 million.
Option 2 is a bit more blunt (but at least as realistic). If Smith doesn't retire, he won't play for the Steelers next year. The time and money they've sunk into the defensive line came through most of last season, and young players like Cam Heyward and Ziggy Hood have nowhere to go but up. It would, perhaps, be ideal to have a healthy Smith play through a farewell tour in 2012, provide adequate amount of playing time and continue to foster the development of the younger players. The financial reality is his physical condition makes him too much of a liability to risk paying that much, and a reduced salary may not be of any benefit, should he get hurt again.
The Steelers will also ask some guys to take paycuts. WR Hines Ward said he would, and is under contract for one more year. Getting him down to the veteran minimum would save another $1 million and change, and regardless of his stats from 2011 (under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians), he can still contribute as the team's 4th receiver. WR Jerricho Cotchery is a value guy, not a necessary guy, and likely won't be back in 2012, judging by the current cap predictions of around $120 million.
NT Casey Hampton tore his ACL Jan. 8 at Denver. That means the 35-year-old began the rehabilitation process in 2012, and the likelihood of making a full recovery in the same calendar year at his age (let alone conditioning issues) is very low. Nine months is the typical stated recovery time for a torn ACL - even if you don't factor in the time to get back into shape after that many months of relative inactivity, Hampton would have to exceed expectations if he'll be ready to play by Week 1. He likely does not have much of a choice but to take a pay reduction and start the year on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list. That would give the Steelers a roster exemption to keep Hampton there until he's able to play.
With James Farrior and Larry Foote - the current buck linebackers - it seems at least one of them will have to take a paycut to stay in town. The Steelers could decide to cut one and reduce the contract of the other, but the main concern with this is depth. The buck is the quarterback of the defense - the guy who makes the pre-snap adjustments at the line. The Steelers will not find anyone this year more experienced and ready to play the position in this regard than Farrior or Foote, so the release of either of them will hurt this team on the field in the short run. It's something that likely has to be done though, so expect the Steelers to find someone in this year's draft to groom for the spot in 2013.
While the Post-Gazette reported they may look into restructuring the contracts of SS Troy Polamalu and QB Ben Roethlisberger, it seems more likely that Roethlisberger's contributions to the cap issue could come in the form of an extension. If he agrees to tack on another two years to his current deal and spreads the money due to him in that time frame a bit more evenly, he'll get more in the end and help keep the team financially viable so he can continue winning (he has to be aware that it'll be hard to compete with the amount of rookie and veteran minimum guys the Steelers will need to sign if money doesn't get freed up). Now that Patriots QB Tom Brady has been to five Super Bowls and Giants QB Eli Manning has won his second, Roethlisberger knows he's got some work to do.
March 13 and Restricted Free Agency
Some combination/variation of those moves would probably get them to the point where the top 51 guys are under the cap - required by March 13.
March 13 is also when restricted free agency begins, concerning players whose contracts have expired but who have no more than three years of experience.
Restricted free agents are allowed to pursue offers from other teams, but depending on the level tendered by their current team, the new team must provide a draft pick as compensation. That compensation is based on the following scale:
- First Round (highest tender), $2.742 million
- Second Round, $1.927 million
- Original Round/Right of First Refusal $1.26 million
The highest level tender used to be for a first and third round pick, but that level no longer exists under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Each of the Steelers' restricted free agents will receive one of the top three tender offers. Steel City Insider's Jim Wexell estimates the total amount tendered to those six players will be around $7.75 million, so the Steelers will need to do restructuring and releasing beyond simply becoming compliant with the cap. The amount of room those additional cuts will provide depends on the structure of the contracts: some players are owed a certain amount of money if they are still on the roster on the first day of the new league year, meaning that they would have to be cut before March 13 (like McFadden and Battle); others are owed certain money if they are on the roster a few days after the start of the new league year.
Part II will deal with some of the specific tactics used in restricted free agency, as well as a potential candidate for a contract extension.