It has been said, "Football is a war of attrition". A game measured in yards, comes down to inches; and every inch is lost and gained at the point of attack. To reach positive ends, battles must be won where it all starts - the offensive line.
We've covered the quarterbacks, linebackers both inside and out, and the running backs. We've explored options toward restructuring large contracts and speculated budgets regarding empty roster spots. Here's the numbers as we left them:
Line entries in red represent restructured deals, and blue entries are speculations. The amount of the cap hit is more important than the name attached to it with the speculated players. (Check the previous stories in this stream for explanations of any moves we've made so far.)
One name stands alone in green - James Harrison. We covered the options regarding his situation, but made no decision as of yet. He is on the bubble list of players who could possibly be released to clear cap sapce, and we're about to add another name to his.
Willie Colon has become a hot topic of debate as the Pittsburgh Steelers begin looking forward to the 2013 season. He is scheduled for some rather hefty cap hits - seventh highest in 2013 - but has found himself on injured reserve by the end of each of the past three seasons.
The team's starting right tackle since taking the place of Max Starks for the last two games of 2006, moved to left guard to fill a hole Pittsburgh desperately needed to fill after finding themselves with too many tackles and not enough guards. Colon took time to adjust, but by the time the Steelers returned from their Week 4 bye, he had become the defining factor in the team's success running the ball. Images of his legendary horizontal mambo with the Cincinnati Bengals Vontaze Burfict still circulate the web, and probably will as long as there are terrible towel waving fans. However, Colon's first healthy season and Pittsburgh's rushing success came to bitter ends as the Baltimore Ravens Terrell Suggs went low against Colon, wiping out his knee. Colon never returned.
As with any player, options are virtually limitless, but we will stick to basic possibilities. If the Steelers feel his structural integrity has been compromised and his health has become too much of a risk, they may consider releasing him. Colon has $6.45 million in dead money married to the three remaining seasons on his contract. If the Steelers release him after the Super Bowl, the team would only save $1.2 million. If they waited until after June 1st, they would save a total of $4.425 million toward 2013, but would suffer a penalty of $3.225 million against 2014.
Pittsburgh could release Colon, draft a late-round guard or re-sign a free agent, and still save a few dollars against the salary cap; but his experience and performance when healthy may be more valuable. He does have three seasons remaining on his deal, making him a possible candidate for restructure - if the Steelers are comfortable keeping him beyond 2013 if he makes it through the season unscathed. Colon is scheduled for a base salary of $5.5 million this year. If $4.5 million were restructured into a signing bonus, the Steelers would retain their starting left guard and save three million bucks against the 2013 cap. Dead money of $1.5 million would be attached to each of 2014 and 2015. This would even allow the Steelers the same release option in 2014, with similar penalties if they decide to give him one more try.
With Harrison, we had the opportunity to release him and re-sign him to a lower rate, and still save cap space. Colon doesn't leave us this option. His dead money amounts are too high. This option would actually cost more than what he is already scheduled to make. For now, we'll set him aside with Harrison. Once we've toured the entire roster, we will come back and explore these bubble players when we have a better idea of our impending roster.
Starks, who has been the starting left tackle since 2007, is an unrestricted free agent and the front office is not expected to re-sign him. It's not impossible, just improbable. Starks is not the only player about to become a free agent, and the Steelers will be doing good to re-sign just one of them. They will be deciding between Starks, Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster.
Foster started most of 2012 at right guard in place of an injured David DeCastro. When DeCastro returned, Foster moved to the spot vacated by an injured Colon at left guard. Foster positional flexibility has earned him roster spot since signing with Pittsburgh, earning him the ability to start and play admirably this year. He would be a solid starting option for many teams, but he has already made it known he wants to stay with the Steelers despite the current situation which would leave him as a reserve.
Legursky has had several opportunities to earn starting jobs at both guard positions, but was never able to win his competitions. Even his ability to back up those positions was questioned in 2012, when Pittsburgh moved Maurkice Pouncey to Colon's empty LG spot while Foster still played in DeCastro's stead. This move put Legursky in his best position at center. Legursky started at center in place of an injured Pouncey in Super Bowl XLV, and has been Pouncey's understudy since joining the team. With Pouncey often battling ankle injuries, the backup center has played an important role with the team; a solid veteran reserve is invaluable.
The team has plenty of younger options in John Malecki and Kelvin Beachum, making it unlikely the Steelers sign more than one of their free agents, if they sign any at all. They've also already signed two other offensive linemen to futures contracts: Joe Long and Justin Cheadle. For projection's sake, I will present an example contract to establish a budget for the one possibly re-signed free agent.
Of the three players heading toward free agency, Starks was the least compensated. He has been outspoken about his desire to remain a starting left tackle and be paid like one - no matter which team is signing the check. Both Legursky and Foster will have to look to other teams if they wish to find starting jobs. Both played for minimum level restricted free agent tenders of $1.28 million in 2012, and will probably be expecting raises in 2013. Because either would only be a backup consideration, the Steelers will most likely allow all three to test free agency, and then offer a contract similar to this one to the player who receives no offers.
I have to pick a name, and if I had my way, Foster would be the one to return. His ability at guard has been documented, and his size lends him as a reserve tackle as well. Providing depth at tackle would be a pleasant bonus as Pittsburgh looks to start Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, both recent second round draft selections who ended the 2012 season on injured reserve - especially with no Starks for insurance.
If Foster happens to fall through the cracks in free agency, I could see the Steelers offering him a deal like this: three years, six million dollars with a low signing bonus. His number of accrued seasons would warrant minimum base salaries of $715k (2013), $730k (2014) and $870k (2015). By adding one million to each season and one thousand to 2013's salary, we arrive at a total deal worth of six million after giving him a $684k signing bonus. This is a speculation, not a projection. I think one of the three UFA's could be had for a similar amount if they receive no attention on the market.
Before we look at the updated numbers, we have to address our roster limit situation. Pittsburgh will sign a lot more players before the team meets for OTAs. The purpose of this post is to work around within the confines of the salary cap. All numbers in this post are subject to change, especially as time periods and statistical stipulations are met activating contract elevators. While we may not be completely accurate to every penny, the numbers are updated often. The big picture is the most important thing anyways. To keep this picture in focus, we will begin tracking a cut list. This will keep our cap roster at 53. The players on the cut list could still make the roster in place of someone else or wind up on the practice squad. Here are the players starting out on this list:
This leaves us with the following 53 players and cap situation:
March and free agency are still a far time off. We still have half the roster to explore yet, with a ton of tough decisions to make. We've added Colon to the bubble list, and being over the cap by six million dollars already means someone on the list will have to be released or have their contract creatively manipulated to clear adequate space. In the next post we will move to the safeties, where we will find the next name to add to Colon's and Harrison's.