Free agency and coach swapping have commandeered non-playoff related headlines, as teams who failed to make the playoffs begin evaluating players already under contract for next season, and figuring out where they will stand with the 2013 salary cap.
As was said so eloquently here on Behind The Steel Curtain, playoff football just isn't the same when the Pittsburgh Steelers are not involved. To deal with the lack of Steelers football on my television, I'm getting my fix by looking forward to our cap position for next season.
Numbers have been tossed around incessantly since the Steelers concluded their 2012 season with a 24-10 win against the Cleveland Browns to draw their final record even at 8-8. Reports have the Steelers anywhere from eight, to 28 million dollars over the estimated 2013 NFL salary cap of $121 million. Even though only few are correct to the number of Pittsburgh's deficit, all can agree the Steelers have work to do being over the cap before attempting to re-sign any of their impending free agents.
Let's take a quick look at the real numbers. The number listed under a year represents the player's total cap hit for the designated season. The amount of signing bonus money prorated to each season is represented in the player's dead money column. The parenthetical years designates the first season of a change in the prorating amount.
The Steelers have cap penalties of approximately $460k in 2013, residue from releases and retirements of veterans in the past. In addition, the Steelers also have seven other players signed to futures contracts: DBs Isaiah Green and Ross Ventrone, WRs Bert Reed and Derek Moye, OG Justin Cheadle, OT Joe Long and LB Kion Wilson. [No numbers were available for Ventrone or Wilson at the time of this posting]
When the season begins, the number held against the salary cap is comprised of the top 51 salaries of the 53 man roster, meaning the bottom two contracts are ignored. These ignored salaries tend to be deactivated, entry level players like Adrian Robinson. The 2013 minimum salary for a player with zero accrued seasons is set at $405k, and similar players seeing the second year of their 2012 minimum deals will be receiving $480k.
The first step for the front office is to clear the estimated NFL salary cap of $121 million, meaning they have to make almost $20 million dollars disappear just to get out of the red, and then find more room to re-sign players who are about to become restricted or unrestricted free agents, or possibly free agents from outside the organization. To clear cap space, the Steelers will either have to terminate the contracts of players already on the roster, or restructure 2013 base salaries into signing bonuses which can be prorated up to five years of the life of the contract for cap purposes.
There are endless options for the Steelers in regards to each player on the roster, and without knowing what kind of talent Pittsburgh will be able to secure in the draft, it is impossible to predict what will take place before training camp opens. Instead, we will explore smaller sample sizes, beginning with least glaring concern for 2013, at the most important position for any football team -- the quarterback position.
Ben Roethlisberger, the Super Bowl-winning franchise QB, has his named permanently etched into the top spot on the Steelers depth chart, and it will remain there until Ben removes it himself. He is under contract until 2016, however the two spots behind him, are empty at the moment.
Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch held those spots in 2012, but their performances left Pittsburgh's fanbase wanting for a better, more stable option behind the oft-injured Roethlisberger. Leftwich led the Steelers to their loss at home against the Ravens in Week 11, with multiple broken ribs. Batch led the team to a 1-1 record in two starts, though a plethora of Pittsburgh turnovers sent playoff dreams into a perpetual downfall. The team attempted to rush Roethlisberger back, but to no avail. He was unprepared to return, and the damage to the team was irreparable.
While offensive coordinator Todd Haley still finds himself associated with the head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals, it seems the Steelers are unlikely to part with two experienced veterans. Whether Pittsburgh must find a new coordinator or not, veteran leadership is at a premium, and will be needed on the sidelines as much as the field.
Batch seems the most likely to not be re-signed as a player, although finding a place on the coaching staff as a quality control assistant is not completely out of the question. Batch was 38 years old at the end of the 2012 season, and father time is unforgiving. Batch's emotional display after defeating the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 13, may have spoken volumes to his mindset towards being a professional football player in the future.
Leftwich was 33 at the end of this season. Leftwich's situation has become shaky over a recent trend of injuries, but his veteran starting experience makes him a valuable reserve. If the Steelers offer him a contract, it is likely to be of the minimum variety. For projection's sake, we will say the Steelers offer him a two year, minimum deal.
With multiple needs across the roster, Pittsburgh will seek to fill other needs in the draft. The third QB in 2013 will most likely be an undrafted rookie, or a discarded veteran free agent. The 2013 free agent pool will be full of former first round selections, though there is a reason they will be unemployed. Available names include: Brady Quinn, Matt Leinart and Tarvaris Jackson. Journeymen include Derek Anderson, Bruce Gradkowski, and Kellen Clemens. Younger lesser-knowns include Matt Moore, and former Steelers Brian Hoyer and Jerrod Johnson.
There is also a chance the San Francisco 49ers could part ways with former starter Alex Smith, although the Steelers may not have the cap space to chase top names due to a lack of cap space. To clear space, the Steelers will probably restructure some of their more expensive contract, starting with Roethlisberger's.
Roethlisberger is set for base salaries of $11.6 million in 2013 and 2015, and $12.1 million in 2014. Roethlisberger restructured his deal prior to the 2012 season, turning all but a league minimum share of his base salary into a signing bonus, which was prorated along the remaining years of his contract. As it stands right now, he has prorated designations of $8.995 million in 2013, and $3.795 million in 2014 and 2015.
Here is one example of a possible restructure of Roethlisberger's deal:
The Steelers could take $10.5 million of Roethlisberger's base salary for 2013, and convert it to a signing bonus. He has three season left on his contract, including 2013. The prorated amount added to each season would be $3.5 million.
His bonus designations for each season on his deal would now be $12.495 million (2013) and $7.295 million (2014 and 2015), but his base salary for 2013 would be reduced to $1.1 million. By moving $10.5 million of his base salary, the Steelers will save seven million against their team cap figure, although Roethlisberger's cap hits for 2014 and 2015 will increase by $3.5 million each.
Here is an updated view of what the ledger sheet will look like, should the Steelers follow a path similar to the one described here:
The new team figure includes $460k to cover cap penalties. The true number is expected to be slightly over, however individual thousands get lost in cap math like pennies in sofas. As we near the beginning of the 2013 season, we will have a more accurate picture of the penalties as rosters slim down to the 53 man limit.
Next time, we will jump to the defensive side of the ball, and explore the outside linebacker position as it has been the most highly discussed positional group since the 2012 season officially came to an end.