Every news outlet which follows the Pittsburgh Steelers has begun foolishly calling for the head of the team's 2012 starting left guard. Of all the high-priced veterans who should be fearing a release in the next 30 days leading up to the beginning of the new league year on March 12th, Willie Colon should not be one.
I've breached this subject before, when I took Ed Bouchette to task for suggesting this move as impending fact following the end of the season. However, this time I will plead Colon's from a different angle - the same angle which most of his release-rumors have been inaccurately based - the NFL salary cap.
The overwhelming consensus of Colon is he cannot stay healthy for an entire season, regardless of the fact he started every single game from Week 16 of the 2006 season until training camp prior to 2010. Colon injured his Achilles' tendon forcing him to injured/reserve, missing the Steelers last Super Bowl run. He returned in 2011, only to suffer a torn tricep after starting the first game of the year.
In 2012, he was moved to left guard after sophomore Marcus Gilbert played well in his absence at right tackle. When the team selected Mike Adams out of Ohio State in the second-round of the draft, Colon became one of four tackles on the roster - five if counting swing-man Ramon Foster. Often considered undersized for his original starting spot on the outside, Colon was asked to convert to left guard - a position lacking solid production since the departure of Alan Faneca. His performances drew mixed reviews, however his attitude repeatedly inspired a lackluster running game.
Unfortunately, his triumphant return to regular action was cut short by a cheap shot aimed specifically at his knees during a contest against the Baltimore Ravens. Colon rehabbed aggressively and dressed for several games during the remainder of the season, only to be shut down by game-time due to obvious pain and limited mobility. His injury was not expected to be career-threatening. He should be fully healthy in time for at least the beginning of the season, if not training camp.
While it is unknown whether Colon would make it through the years left on his contract without a scratch, concern over his future health has been mistakenly lumped in with Pittsburgh's salary cap situation. What began as worry about over-payment, has led to his name being associated with those who should be released to clear cap space for the 2013 season.
This just simply isn't the case. If Colon is released this off-season, the salary cap will have little to do with it.
Willie Colon is under contract through the 2015 season:
He is scheduled for some pretty hefty cap hits in each year of his remaining deal, making it very easy to expect his release to save cap space in each year. While keeping future years in check is important, clearing cap space this year is more so, with the team already $14.5 million over the cap facing the 51-man deadline. Once tenders and tags have been handed out by the March 12th deadline, this number is expected to swell to well over $20 million.
The Steelers will have to be creative to clear enough space, although restructures simply aren't enough when they add money to following years. The team needs to climb out of its self-inflicted pit, meaning someone will be released - if not more. This is when people turn to Colon, because of his missed time over the past three seasons.
All three injuries were completely unrelated - especially the third. Can a man be blamed for being the target of a malicious act by another? Evidently, he can in Pittsburgh, if his release is believed to help fix the issues currently plaguing the roster - mainly their cap troubles.
If Colon is released before the deadline arrives, the Steelers would save a whopping $1.2 million dollars. He has $2.15 million in dead money associated with each remaining year on his deal. If he is cut before the deadline, those monies are accelerated into the current year - the one in which we will already be at least $20 million over the cap.
If he does not have any clauses in his contract which guarantee portions of his salary at any point prior to June 1st, the team could cut him after this date and split his penalty between 2013 and 2014. Unfortunately, the team needs the space before March 12th; not after June 1st.
In fact of all the options available in Colon's case, cutting him saves the least amount of money. Should he see a simple restructure:
Restructuring would save the team $3 million against the 2013 salary cap, but an extra $1.5 million would be added to each of 2014 and 2015. While in most cases pushing money into the future is something we are trying to avoid; let's look at how the future would play out.
Let's say it is this exact time, but next year. Should someone suggest Colon be cut because of his almost $10 million cap hits, a total penalty of $7.3 million ($3.65 million + $3.65 million) would be held against 2014. Releasing him at this point would save the team $1.85 million - already $650k more than they would have saved by cutting him in 2013.
Had the team done nothing in 2013, but released him in 2014; they would have saved $3.3 million. If they wait until 2015 to do anything, they save $6 million.
Releasing Colon in 2013 before the deadline in March makes the least financial sense. It also makes the least football sense, too.
With the Steelers recently hiring a new offensive line coach - Jack Bicknell, Jr. - after their former assistant took a head coaching job at the collegiate level, talk has escalated rumoring Pittsburgh to be planning a schematical shift to a zone blocking scheme. Colon is said to not fit the mold of a zone blocking guard.
We already know his release really isn't saving us the kind of money we need to clear, but let's take the money out of it for a second.
Colon has starting experience at tackle and guard. The Steelers have two tackles with NFL experience - Adams, who was a second-round pick in 2012, and Gilbert, who was a second-round pick in 2011. The next man in this line would be 2012 seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum, who by admission of the coaches was drafted to play an interior position. However, he still was forced to start six games when Adams and Gilbert failed to finish the 2012 season, just like Colon. With Ramon Foster and Max Starks expected to sign with new teams in free-agency, the team will have zero experienced depth at the tackle position, unless they are able to feel confident in futures player Joe Long or a possible draft-pick.
On the interior of the line can be found Maurkice Pouncey (2010) and David DeCastro (2012) who were both first-round draft picks. When Colon was no longer able to play, Foster was the one put in his place on the line. The team is not expected to have this option again in 2013. The next guard in line was Doug Legursky, who is also not expected to return. The only guards left on the roster are John Malecki, who was on the practice squad for most of last season until Colon, Adams and Gilbert were eliminated; and Justin Cheadle, a futures player signed since the end of the season.
Let's take a look at just how much experience is on the offensive line compared to Colon:
Not counting Pouncey, who is considered one of the best in the entire league at his position, Colon has more years of experience, game appearances and starts than the rest of the group combined.
Even if the team is switching to a zone blocking scheme, knowing three of the other four projected starters (Gilbert, Adams and DeCastro) did not play the entire 2012 season, with only Adams appearing in more than half of its games, would most certainly invoke a want for experienced depth should any of them repeat the feat in 2013. When installing a completely new scheme into an offense only entering its second year, wouldn't experience aid in the process when trying to pound it into the brains of first- and second-year players?
In a year where the team will need almost $20 million in cap space, is the $1.2 million saved by releasing Colon really worth subtracting his wealth of starting experience at multiple positions from a group with only nine seasons between eight men?
When the March deadline rolls around, Colon very well could still find himself cut, however it is possible to clear enough cap space to tender all restricted and exlusive rights free-agents, and sign one or two unrestricted FAs not only this year, but in future years as well - without touching his contract at all until 2015. So, what's the rush?
I sincerely hope the Steelers are smart enough to not let this happen.