Play Money: Exploring Steelers TEs and NFL salary cap

Gregory Shamus

The Steelers got a taste of what life is like without Heath Miller at tight end during their winless beginning to the season. To prevent history from repeating itself in the future, the team needs to address the position soon.

The health of Heath Miller is only one of many reasons for the sub-par season the Pittsburgh Steelers have put together in 2013, but it should be a major concern for the team for the future.

The team has become too accustomed to having Miller each and every week during his tenure in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers got a taste of life without Heath after a torn ACL forced him to miss the final game of 2012, the entire off-season program following and the first four games of 2013.   Granted, his return didn't exactly improve the offense by giant leaps, but it did bring small steps toward normalcy to a chaotic TE group.

The Steelers signed Matt Spaeth in free agency to fill the void, but a lisfranc injury in camp turned Spaeth into another black hole.  The gravity of now being down their top two TEs sucked sophomore David Paulson to the top of the depth chart, drew the likes of Richard Gordon and Michael Palmer into Pittsburgh's orbit and completely squashed Jamie McCoy, Peter Tuitupou and others into oblivion.

Miller returned as a shell of his former self, although he may have been forced back a bit prematurely due to the urgency created by an 0-4 start.  His blocking has not been as crisp, and his hands have not been as consistently solid.  Both are understandable attributes of someone who missed as much practice time as Miller did during his rehabilitation.  To his credit, he did creep closer to his own personal standard with each passing week, often imitated but never quite duplicated.

Spaeth finally returned against the Miami Dolphins in Week 14, although it may have simply been too late.  Paulson had a disappointing 2013 campaign, although the team elected to keep him when Spaeth returned, releasing Gordon instead.  Evidently the team still sees something in the second-year player.

Miller, Spaeth and Paulson are the only three TEs under contract beyond this year.

Real Money

While all three men should be healthy and fully prepared for the 2014 season, the time has come for the Steelers to start thinking about the future at TE, because the future is almost here.

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Miller is set be the sixth largest cap hit on the roster in 2014, as year in which Miller will turn 32.  His chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger is invaluable, and the team will want him around as long as he is physically able to perform; however in 2014, cap savings will be the name of the game.

With Miller entering the final year of his contract, restructuring to clear cap space is not an option.  The team could release him if they feel he cannot return to form.  If so, then they would save $6.02 million against the cap.

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Fortunately for Miller, the Steelers and fans alike, the team is in no way prepared to return to life without Miller; and will not be for most likely the next two or three years.  There are no guarantees a starting-caliber TE will be the best player available during any round of any draft, so the team will want as many opportunities to find one as possible.  The team will also welcome any opportunity to clear cap space.

Play Money

As long as Miller isn't ready to retire, the smart play would be to offer him an extension, much like we did with Roethlisberger during our QB exploration.  Although in this instance, the ideal range for Miller would be two additional years.

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This example proposes a 2-year, $15 million extension including a $3 million dollar signing bonus.  With two extra years making restructuring 2014's figure possible, $4.8 million of his base salary was converted to a bonus, saving $3.2 million in 2014, while adding $1.6 million to 2015 and 2016.

The resulting cap hits for 2015 and 2016 would actually be over $300,000 cheaper than his scheduled 2014 figure, and Miller would only be sacrificing $20,000 in salary.  With the balance of the dead money to base salary, a somewhat early retirement wouldn't kill the team's cap picture; but if Miller is able to remain healthy and Heath-y, the team could extend his deal again in 2016 and restructure for more cap space if necessary.  Miller will be 34 in 2016, so any further extension will depend on his durability as much as his productivity at that point.

Bottomline

Whether the Steelers decide to release, extend or simply pay Miller as planned in 2014, the team needs to begin seeking a suitable replacement in the draft.  Spaeth becomes a free agent again in 2015, as does Miller should the team not extend his contract.  Ideally, the team would want to find one to understudy the pair of veterans before being thrust into a more prominent role, although Paulson proves one season isn't enough for everyone.

By extending Miller's contract, the team can not only save itself some cap room, but also save itself from reaching in the 2014 draft if a TE is not the best player available.  With Miller under retainer, the team can give itself the ability to be patient and find the right guy.

The $3.2 million savings from the Miller extension/restructure may not seem significant at first glance, but it covers the signings of Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones or a draft pick, or a high draft pick at TE and another few low round picks.  Every penny counts in cap math.

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