The Pittsburgh Steelers had a dismal and disappointing 8-8 record in 2012, a season which will become ancient history at 4 pm ET on March 12, 2013.
This is when the previous league year officially ends, and the next one begins. Several things must happen by this deadline, most importantly salary cap compliance.
Each team must adhere to the rule of 51 which requires the top 51 salaries of each roster to fit under the salary cap of $121.1 million for 2013. Pittsburgh is roughly $14.5 million over this limit, but are only a few restructures away from being compliant with the rule of 51. Unfortunately, there is more.
Also due by 4 pm ET on March 12th, are all franchise and transition tags, plus all restricted and exclusive rights free agents. All tags and tenders must adhere to the rule of 51 immediately, whether the player remains employed by his tender or a new contract, or is released at a later date. To offer a tender, the team must have adequate space to cover said tender.
This is what has led to so much speculation over who the Steelers will cut prior to the deadline in order to clear enough space to cover these additional charges. This is also what leads to questions over how many of these additions the team will commit itself to at the deadline.
Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Emmanuel Sanders, Steve McLendon and Stevenson Sylvester are all restricted free agents this season. The minimum RFA tender level which only grants the original team the first right of refusal, is set for a value of $1.323 million dollars.
Dwyer could be the starter if Rashard Mendenhall is not re-signed, and Sanders could be a co-starter again if Mike Wallace is not re-signed; but the rest are expected to draw little interest if allowed to become unrestricted free-agents rather than tendered RFAs. Because of the rule of 51, the team could choose to not tender some, or all, and offer them cheaper contracts during the free-agency period. Decisions on lower ranked reserves like Redman and Sylvester could possibly wait until after the draft if they accept no prior offers.
Free agents will sign new contracts well after the March 12th deadline, but most high-profile signings will come before the draft. The team must remain cap compliant the entire time, meaning for any player signed, adequate cap space must be available. This is why teams try to deal with possible releases before the deadline. Some players have clauses in their contracts which guarantee portions of their salaries for being on the roster at different points of time. Teams would rather cut ties before these clauses take effect, to ensure they have enough space to chase free-agents later.
The toughest part about pre-deadline decisions is the fact there is more cap relief to be found making releases after June 1st, when dead money penalties resulting from contract terminations are allowed to be split between the current year and the following, rather than accelerated into the current year only as is the case with pre-deadline cuts. Players like Willie Colon and LaMarr Woodley, who make little financial sense to release prior to the deadline, could be released after June 1st for significant cap savings. However, these savings won't help Pittsburgh with the March deadline.
Another difficult aspect of pre-deadline cuts is the draft. No one ever knows what will happen until it is over. Team's have to not only be prepared to afford their draft class, but March decisions can have a serious affect on draft board positions.
The amount of players to take paycuts or be cut, will be determined by the number of RFAs the team plans to offer tenders to. For every million dollars handed out in tenders, the team must have enough cap space to cover. With few good restructuring options remaining, someone will have to be released. James Harrison has already expressed a desire to not take a paycut. Releasing him in March saves the team enough to tender most of their RFA's and allows the team to still offer him a cheaper contract later, in free-agency.
The CBA also contains smaller deadlines in its details, by which the values of franchise tags are calculated. Much speculation has been made this off-season over whether the Steelers will postpone any restructuring of the contract of Ben Roethlisberger until as late as April, to keep the averages up forcing the Baltimore Ravens to pay more to lock up Joe Flacco with an exclusive franchise tag if the team cannot reach a new contract.
Let's also not forget the spending minimum implemented in 2013. Teams with excessive cap space will find themselves needing to launder it somewhere. Their best opportunities will either be free agent signings which can have contracts structured to pay large amounts now with decreasing amounts in future years; or pre-training camp trades for players with big contracts. There's little advantage in trading in March, and there will be few free-agents remaining in the summer worth front-loading enough money for cap floor compliance.
Front offices have more than just cap hits and depth charts to worry about during the off-season; timing is just as important as anything. Sometimes, cap moves have more to do with the time frame they take place in, than they do the player or cap hit involved. Just because a player survives the March deadline, does not mean he is guaranteed to make the 2013 roster. Just because a player is cut in March does not mean he will retire, or play elsewhere in 2013.
The Steelers front office will be spending every passing second leading up to the deadline working out a plan to find their way through deadlines and roster limits, all the way to another Super Bowl championship.