In this third installment of our positional exploration of the Pittsburgh Steelers situation relating to the NFL salary cap, we find ourselves still over the limit with multiple key free agents to sign and gaping holes to fill.
We began with the quarterbacks and the imminent contract restructure of Ben Roethlisberger. Next, we moved to the linebacking unit, starting with the outsiders - including the heavy contracts of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Now, we shift the spotlight to the interior of the group. Here is where we stand with the numbers:
We've simulated restructures for Woodley and Roethlisberger, estimated the Steelers budget for backup QBs and deferred Harrison's decision to the bubble list. The total used cap number includes $460,000 to cover penalties from seasons past.
The Steelers are still $1.5 million over the estimated cap of $121 million dollars. To clear more space they will have to cut someone currently under contract, or restructure another deal. Pittsburgh is more likely to do the latter at this point, with Lawrence Timmons seemingly the next intended target.
Timmons will be entering his seventh season with the Steelers. He has four seasons remaining on his contract, including 2013. Like many of Pittsburgh's other star defensive players, he is set to be one of the team's top five cap hits in each year of his deal. In 2013, Timmons is scheduled to receive a base salary of $5.375 million; but his accumulated prorated bonus designations add another $5.785 million, making his total cap hit $11.16 million. Timmons was the third highest scheduled hit for 2013 behind Roethlisberger and Woodley.
Releasing or trading Timmons are not options, nor should they be. Timmons came alive in the latter half of 2012, and was the most impressive member of the Steelers defensive front. The dead money penalties by choosing either option would be $13.64 million in 2013, or $6.82 million against 2013 and 2014 if cut after June 1st. Like I said, they are not options.
Considering the Steelers are already so heavily invested in Timmons, and he has steadily increased his production keeping pace with his rising salary; the team will most likely restructure his contract as well, clearing cap space by charging most of his base salary evenly across the life of his deal, paying the restructured amount to the player in advance of the season as a signing bonus.
Should Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert and current director of football and business administrations Omar Kahn choose to convert four million of Timmons' base salary, the team would save three million dollars against his 2013 cap hit, while adding only one million dollars to each year after. As long as Timmons continues to stay healthy, at the age of 26, an increased commitment carries the least amount of risk for Pittsburgh compared to their other restructure options.
While there is little question as to what the Steelers will do about Timmons' situation, the real question lies in the empty starting spot beside him in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense.
Larry Foote, who is 32 years old, saw his contract with the Steelers expire as he wrapped up his 11th season in the NFL - 10th with Pittsburgh - in 2012. Foote has already expressed an interest in returning to the Steelers, even if it required a pay cut to happen. Foote played like a solid veteran in 2012, but he failed to outshine the shadow left by retired James Farrior. The Steelers are anxious to find a young stud to install next to Timmons for the next decade, but the only other returning ILB under contract for 2013 at the moment, is Sean Spence who missed his 2012 rookie campaign after suffering major damage to his knee in a preseason game.
If Pittsburgh decides they are unprepared to pass the torch to players who have not necessary proven themselves worthy, they may want to retain Foote for at least another season. Foote received $3.6 million dollars for 2012, however the Steelers are only likely to offer him a one-year, veteran minimum contract based on his number of accrued seasons - $940,000. Foote did not say if he was willing to take a pay cut of $2.66 million dollars to stay, and the team has not said whether they will offer him a deal at all because they continue to hope their new starter is either already on the roster, or is about to be found in the upcoming draft.
Pittsburgh also has a decision to make on Stevenson Sylvester, who is a restricted free agent this season. A fifth round selection in the 2010 draft, Sylvester has maintained his spot on the roster by becoming a solid special teams contributor. Receiving little game time with the defensive unit, Sylvester cannot be strongly considered ready to fill the shoes of his predecessors. Few other teams would covet him as a starting option either, so the Steelers would at least not have to worry about signing him to a high-compensation tender.
If all estimates hold true, restricted free agent tag levels are projected to be (cash value represents minimum value of two options, although tender amount is determined by higher of two values):
Level 1: $1,323,000 = Team holds first right of refusal (right to match)
Level 2: $1,323,000 or 110% of 2012 salary = right to match, original round compensatory draft pick
Level 3: $2,023,088 or 110% of 2012 salary = right to match, second round compensatory draft pick
Level 4: $2,878,628 or 110% of 2012 salary = right to match, first round compensatory draft pick
If Sylvester is not considered a starting option in 2013, he will not receive a tender any higher than the minimum level, which would still be a significant salary for a special teams player - if he is offered any tender at all. The Steelers may choose to not offer him a tender, let him hit free agency and then offer him a minimum level, multi-year reserve worthy contract which would be more cap friendly. If they offered him a three-year deal at minimum levels, his salaries would be: $715k (2013), $730k (2014) and $745k (2015). This is not counting any possible signing bonus the team may include in addition, though teams don't usually guarantee large portions of backup player contracts.
The Steelers are ready to find out what they have in Spence. They have also added Marshall McFadden and Brian Rolle to their off-season roster to ensure their participation in pre-season activities and position competition. McFadden spent time between the Steelers active roster and practice squad this season, contributing mainly on special teams filing in for injured regulars. Rolle was a sixth round draft selection by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011. He became the Eagles starting weak-side linebacker by Week 4 and did so for the remainder of the season. He was released in October of 2012. Rolle played middle linebacker for Ohio State University, and is related to fellow NFL players Antrel Rolle (Giants), Samari Rolle (formerly with Ravens, Titans) and Myron Rolle who was in training camp with the Steelers in 2012, but currently is with Tennessee.
For projection's sake, we will choose the most expensive option presented and offer Sylvester his $1.323 million tender. This is not a guarantee Sylvester will receive such an offer, but the amount of his tender would cover the cost of a multi-year minimum deal or a one-year minimum deal to Foote. The only way the Steelers would pay more for a name not mentioned here, is if they take an ILB with their first round pick. We will cover projected rookie contracts in a future post, so for now we'll stick with Sylvester's tender.
One other move of note happened. Chris Rainey was waived, resulting in a dead money penalty of $135,750 but still saved $389,500 in cap space. The numbers on the following chart have been changed to reflect Rainey's release and Sylvester's salary.
Thanks to Timmons' restructure, we are finally under the cap; but we still have a long way to go. The release of Rainey currently leaves our roster with zero running backs under contract, but three impending free agents. Next time we will explore what the Steelers may do about their lack of ground troops.