Play Money: Exploring Steelers DL and NFL salary cap

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

An era is coming to a close in Pittsburgh along the Steelers defensive line. The time has come to decide whether or not the next generation is already in place.

The Pittsburgh Steelers may not believe they are rebuilding, but the first page will turn this off-season as the team enters a new chapter in their history.

First, Aaron Smith was let go because he was no longer physically able to meet the demands of playing end on the Steelers 3-4 defensive line. Then, Casey Hampton was not re-signed when his contract ran out. Now, Brett Keisel is speeding toward the end of his current contract, and there is little reason to think he will receive any different treatment than Hampton.

The Steelers cannot be blamed for not making the appropriate and timely measures to prepare for the departure of their championship era defensive linemen. First-round picks were spent on Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. A reliable swingman was found in Al Woods, and Steve McLendon earned the right to take Hampton's place. However, slow development has diffused any excitement or confidence in their ability to fly on their own without veterans to lead them.

Heyward really came on in 2014, leaving plenty of optimism toward his ability to be a regular starter. Hood has not garnered the same reviews, but has been slowly progressing himself in each passing year. Unfortunately, both Hood and Woods will be unrestricted free agents this season, and the team has to decide whether or not to stick with the players they've worked to develop.

Real Money

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Defensive line, much like the running backs, leaves no room for creating cap space. Whether the team decides to re-sign Hood, Woods or go in a completely different direction, the contracts already on record will stay as they are.

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The Steelers cannot view their defensive line as a liability on the ledger, although they lack depth and experience on the field. Heyward is projected to have his fifth-year option picked up by the team in 2015 at an estimated worth of around $8.4 million, but offering him an extension now would only increase his cap hit for 2014 despite possibly saving against his projected option salary.

Considering what Heyward will demand as a starting 3-4 defensive end if he continues to produce as he has since seizing the starting job from Hood in 2013, the team will probably be best served leaving his contract alone in 2014, then negotiate his new contract when he is already expected to have a mammoth cap hit anyway.

Play Money

The biggest question mark in this department resides next to Hood's name. He has paled in comparison to his legendary predecessor Smith, but most 3-4 ends do. Legends are legends for a reason, not just because they were pretty good occasionally. Legends are not simply replaced, even with a first-round pick.

In Hood's defense, the trend of rookies being unable to perform to meet the standard in the Steelers defense continued this year with Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams. Hood is already experienced in the system. He is not dominant, but is not a detriment, either.

Many took his benching for Heyward earlier in the year as a sign of his failure to secure his job. Lost in the debate is the fact Keisel was still playing like himself, and Heyward was playing better than Hood. The move in no way insinuated Hood was done in Pittsburgh. When Keisel injured his foot, the team didn't put Woods over Hood.

The safe bet is to expect the team to offer Hood a new deal. He may draw interest in free-agency, so the team will offer him a mid-level, back-loaded deal to compete in the overall numbers game, but protect themselves should they stumble across a better player in the next few seasons.

It's also a safe bet to expect the team to try to retain Woods as well, who now has experience at both end and nose tackle. The Steelers love their utility infielders, and will want to retain Woods unless he garners some interest in free-agency.

Here are some examples of possible offers to Hood and Woods. Also included are the numbers for Brian Arnfelt should he make the roster in 2014 after spending most of this year on the practice squad. Arnfelt was promoted to the active roster in Week 14.

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This scenario offers Hood a measly 4 year, $14 million dollar deal. Heyward will most likely see a much larger offer than this, and Hood could receive a better deal from end-needy teams elsewhere. The Steelers will gamble on Hood taking the deal based on the idea he is guaranteed to continue as a starter in a place and system he is already familiar and comfortable with.

The benefit for the Steelers will come in the structure of the deal. In this estimate, Hood could be released in either of his final two seasons and the team would save cap space. If they have not found a suitable replacement in the first two seasons, they at least know they have a starter in place for the final two years - years in which the team will have the most cap space to deal with backloaded contracts such as this.

Woods' deal isn't really sexy either, but unless another team views him as an immediate starting upgrade, he will not find much better as a backup anywhere else.

Bottomline

Whether you like Hood or not, the Steelers would need to have a seriously better contingency plan in place through free-agency or draft target, although both are gambles when compared to the devil they already know.

The team is unlikely to keep seven defensive linemen, although it is possible considering all of the men currently under contract are also under 30 years of age. For now, we'll leave all seven on our Play Money tracker, but Hebron Fangupo, Arnfelt and Williams are the expendable names depending on how the draft and free-agency play out.

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