To prevent a complete offensive implosion, the Steelers could decide to jettison the consistent defense which has carried them until now.
What is more important: preventing opponents from putting up points, or trying to simply outscore them despite circumstance? Whatever answer the Pittsburgh Steelers arrive at could determine how the upcoming off-season plays out.
The team will have several hurdles to clear when it comes to compliance with the NFL salary cap. Not only will decisions have to be made about aging defensive veterans with obese cap hits, but regular offensive starters are expected to exit in free-agency leaving those following the Steelers feeling doubtful about the teams outlook in 2013 and beyond.
In this series, we've been simulating off-season scenarios which find Pittsburgh fielding a full roster which fits under the cap. Most of the speculation surrounding the Steelers revolves around the imminent youth movement, as the team completes the transition from one generation to the next. In this installment, we will explore what the ledger would look like should the Steelers decide to sever ties with its consistently top defensive superstars in order to preserve it's young, talented and underachieving offense.
Here are the top 51 salaries as they stand in reality, as the team prepares to meet the March 12th deadline for cap compliance:
For this simulation, we will begin as we've begun all others; with the restructures of the top three cap hits on the roster - LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Ben Roethlisberger - which saves about $16 million. These are virtually guaranteed to happen, although actual amounts may differ. Timmons is the only ILB from 2012 definitely on the roster for 2013. Woodley will need to be healthy and prepared to compensate for the exit of James Harrison. Roethlisberger is attached at the hip to the Steelers Super Bowl chances, and is expected to see an extension either this year or next.
While three restructures gets our 51-man roster beneath the cap, tags and tenders must be submitted and accounted for and a plan must be in place for accommodating re-signings of unrestricted free agents. This is where the Steelers have to make a choice. Will they cling to their league-best defense for another season or two, at the expense of their talented young offense's future? Will the team sever ties with its aging crutches, and invest in offensive legs for the sake of competing with NFL trends? Will it be content to straddle the fence for another year or two, while trying not to pull themselves apart?
In this instance, we will simulate the evacuation of aging veterans and their heavy cap hits - not a likely scenario, but still a strong possibility depending on one's interpretation of comments coming from general manager Kevin Colbert and members of the Rooney family following the end of a disappointing 8-8 season. Toss in injury concerns, comments about not wanting paycuts and extra-curricular activities like social media and dodgeball, and suddenly the veteran leadership which was deemed so necessary appears less interested in Steelers football in 2013 than fellow teammates Woodley, Ike Taylor and Antonio Brown, who all are already in full-swing training for the upcoming season which is still months away.
This simulation will focus on preserving the young offense at the expense of the old defense. The only two defensive veterans safe from cap cuts are Woodley and Timmons, due to their ages and contract situations. For this example, everyone else is gone.
Casey Hampton and Larry Foote are already unrestricted free agents, and will be presumed to remain so. Joining them will be: Taylor, James Harrison, Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. Previously in this space, we took a look at the cap savings created by the release of these high priced veterans.
Because this simulation is emphasizing offensive continuity, neither Brown nor Willie Colon or Heath Miller will be considered for releases. Releasing the other five would knock $18,590,334 off of the Steelers cap bill for 2013. However, the real benefit to their releases are found in the following years. For example, while saving over $18.5 million this season, the releases of Harrison, Taylor and Polamalu would clear $30,631,666 from 2014.
While this author acknowledges the unlikelihood of this scenario in its entirety, if the Steelers really are considering getting the offensive band back together, this would create sufficient cap space to do so. Combined with our three restructures, Pittsburgh would be about $20 million below the cap.
The next thing to do, is deal with tagged and tendered players. Jonathan Dwyer is currently scheduled to be the starting running back in 2013, but recent talk by Rashard Mendenhall suggests the door to Pittsburgh hasn't completely closed on him. We will project a contract for Mendenhall, but because draft selections will be needed to address newly created vacancies on defense, there will be little room for upgrading the offense which was addressed in free-agency. We will offer base level RFA tenders to Dwyer and Redman, and the appropriate ERFA tender level to Baron Batch. Another player to receive a base level RFA tender would be receiver Emmanuel Sanders, due to the contract of Brown and the projected offer we will make to Mike Wallace.
On the defensive side of the ball, a base level RFA tender will be offered to McLendon, although his nose tackle position could be addressed in what would be a defense-heavy draft. Until a tangible replacement is in place, McLendon will be the starter. Inside linebacker and special teamer Stevenson Sylvester is also a restricted free-agent in 2013, but he is more likely to go un-tendered and be re-signed at a much cheaper rate. Cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke is also an exclusive rights free-agent, like Batch, and could be needed if Taylor is released.
Our tender offers reduce our $20 million surplus to about $13.5 million, good enough to pass the March 12th deadline. Fast-forwarding through the off-season, this simulation will see projected contracts for Wallace, Mendenhall, Keenan Lewis, Ramon Foster and Greg Warren. Also, a standard course of seven projected draft-picks have been added to compensate for the numerous vacancies along the defensive unit.
Estimated free-agent re-signings with signing bonuses in parentheses:
Mike Wallace - 5 years, $50 million ($20 million)
Keenan Lewis - 5 years, $35 million ($15 million)
Rashard Mendenhall - 5 years, $30 million ($10 million)
Ramon Foster - 3 years, $6 million ($684,000)
Greg Warren - 3 years, $2.665 million ($0)
These additions pushed us slightly over the cap again, so restructures were applied to the contracts of Colon, Miller and Antonio Brown, with Miller receiving a two-year extension. The $8.8 million saved puts us back below the salary cap, snugly inside our $115-$118 million target range.
The biggest problem with this scenario, outside of the lack of experience all over the defensive roster, is having Ben Roethlisberger as the only quarterback under contract. The Steelers believe in holding three QBs on a 53-man roster, so two players on the chart below will give way to a quarterback - most likely, a linebacker, receiver or nose tackle.
It is extremely unlikely the Steelers would choose to enter the 2013 season with neither Ryan Clark, nor Troy Polamalu on the roster; but this simulation found no room for either of their contracts. Perhaps new contracts could be structured differently to accommodate the smaller cap hit of Clark, but this only puts heavier price tags on future seasons.
In the second half of this offensive-focused simulation, we will explore the effects on future seasons.
As a fan, which side of the fence do you find yourself on? Voice your thoughts in the poll below.
What should the Steelers be most focused on preserving this off-season?
The skilled athletic offense (19 votes)
The aging veteran defense (21 votes)
The young talent from both sides (173 votes)
It's not about age, it's about cap space. (55 votes)
268 total votes