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How Steelers GM Kevin Colbert is planning for 2014 and beyond

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Colbert Way

Under GM Kevin Colbert, the Steelers front office has been fairly conservative and quite methodical. Instead of reacting to new problems each year, the team has historically tried to plan one year ahead when dealing with player contracts. Each offseason, it looks at which significant players have contracts that will expire the following year and decides whether to extend that player’s tenure or whether to replace that player when his contract expires. By understanding this strategy, we can better anticipate the moves the team is likely to make during the next few months.

Working a year ahead has advantages. Negotiating with a player that has reached (or is weeks away from) free agency is generally expensive, as other teams drive up the player’s price. Negotiating a year ahead gives the team more leverage while granting the player an earlier payday and insurance against a career-ending injury. Ideally, a player can be signed at a discount rate before their talent becomes widely apparent. If a player is deemed expendable, a replacement can be drafted and given a year to learn the ropes before being thrust into a starting role. This is why so few rookies start for the Steelers; they usually have an experienced player starting ahead of them.

Working ahead also has disadvantages. Circumstances may change during the player’s final contract year. The most common case is a player that blossoms from a backup to a successful starter in their final contract year. A player may also see an injury or a sudden diminishment of skills in that year. Colbert’s strategy works best when the coaching staff has a strong grasp of each player’s skill set and development potential.

The one-year planning horizon is not for all players. Most backups and even a few starters (e.g., punter, kicker) play for the minimum salary or slightly more and therefore have little impact on the salary cap. These players are fairly easily replaceable, so the team may let their contracts expire before negotiating a new deal. If a backup player receives an unexpectedly high offer from another team, the Steelers generally backfill by signing a veteran free agent to a low-cost deal. The team rarely signs high-priced or even midrange free agents, preferring to concentrate on resigning its own players.

Historically, Colbert also has an aversion to dead money. Although the team has "purged" many aging veterans over the past several years, these moves almost always come when the team simply declines to renew a player’s contract. Cutting a player during his contract term generally results in "dead money," which by definition is wasted money against the salary cap. The Steelers also rarely ask a player under contract to accept a salary cut. Both of these strategies may reflect the influence of the Rooneys, a traditional family that prefers to honor contracts. Most other NFL teams have few qualms about forcing a player under contract to take a salary cut or lose his job.

A Look Back at 2013

As an example of how the Steelers operate, consider the team’s situation one year ago. The contracts of starters such as WR Mike Wallace and CB Keenan Lewis were about to expire, but the team made little move to keep them, having already decided the previous year that these players would be too expensive to keep and thus were expendable. The front office expected WR Emmanuel Sanders and CB Cortez Allen, respectively, to step in for these players in the starting lineup. When the Patriots signed Sanders to an offer sheet, however, the Steelers were forced to match the offer in order to maintain their designated succession plan; the front office was not confortable with aging WR Jerricho Cotchery starting opposite of WR Antonio Brown.

Instead of worrying about Wallace and Lewis, the team focused on players whose contracts will expire in 2014. This list included starters S Ryan Clark, OLB James Harrison, DE Ziggy Hood, DE Brent Keisel, and WR Sanders as well as key backup OLB Jason Worilds. The team also had to decide the status of restricted free agent RB Jonathan Dwyer, who had started most of the previous year. The team decided that Harrison and Keisel were past their prime. Dwyer, Hood, Sanders, and Worilds were seen as mediocre players and easily replaceable. None was offered a long-term contract, although Dwyer was retained for 2014 under an RFA deal.

In an unusual move, the Steelers asked Harrison to reduce his salary for the final year of his contract. Presumably, the team felt the presence of Worilds, who had effectively (if unspectacularly) filled in for Harrison on occasion, provided a backup plan. Harrison refused the lower salary and was cut, leaving Worilds as the designated starter. With Worilds also in his final contract year, however, he would not be a long-term solution.

With a number of starters thus slated to depart after the 2013 season, the Steelers needed a replacement plan. Of the then-current backups, only previous first-round DE Cameron Heyward was seen as a future starter. To replace the others, the team needed to draft carefully in 2013. By the end of the draft, the replacement plan became obvious:

  • OLB Jason Worilds -> OLB Jarvis Jones (1st round)
  • RB Jonathan Dwyer -> RB Le’Veon Bell (2nd round)
  • WR Emmanuel Sanders -> WR Markus Wheaton (3rd round)
  • S Ryan Clark -> S Shamarko Thomas (4rd round)
  • DE Brent Keisel -> DE Cameron Heyward (on team)
  • DE Ziggy Hood -> ???

The team’s first four draft picks squarely addressed the key starters expected to depart after 2013. The only starting position not fully addressed was DE, where the team had only one player (Heyward) but two openings. The Steelers picked up two undrafted D-linemen (Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams) but may need to revisit this position in 2014.

Although the Steelers are widely known as a BPA (best player available) team, this analysis shows a sharp focus on filling specific positions in the draft. Like most teams, the Steelers look to fill positions of need before taking a flyer on the BPA.

A Look Ahead at 2014

As much as some fans would like to see Worilds and Sanders return, their fate was decided a year ago and set in stone with the drafting of their replacements. Following in the footsteps of Lewis and Wallace, these players will receive lucrative offers from other teams and are highly unlikely to return to the Steelers.

The front office will instead make decisions on the future of players with contracts expiring at the end of 2014. This list includes starters CB Cortez Allen, T Marcus Gilbert, TE Heath Miller, S Troy Polamalu, C Maurkice Pouncey, and CB Ike Taylor. We can only speculate about the outcome of these decisions. An easy choice is to extend Miller, who returned from a severe knee injury to regain his normal high level of play. An extension through 2016 would hold Miller until he is 34 while freeing cap space in 2017 for a potential new contract for RB Le’Veon Bell.

Another easy one is to not extend Taylor, who will be 34 next season and is clearly losing speed and ability. The team could even ask Taylor to take a modest ($2M-$3M) pay cut for 2014, but the James Harrison experience shows that this is a dangerous approach unless the team is prepared to start Allen and William Gay at cornerback next year. Allen, on the other hand, is likely to get an extension, if only because the team should avoid replacing both starting cornerbacks in the same year. Having only regained his starting position at the end of the 2013 season, Allen is likely to sign a modest deal, perhaps 3 years/$10 million.

Polamalu is the same age as Miller and, although he has lost a step, is also playing at a high level. A one-year extension at a moderate salary would be in order, assuming Polamalu is willing to play an additional season.

Gilbert has been a starter for most of the past two years, but his play has been inconsistent. He began to improve at the end of last season, but whether he is the long-term answer at RT is unclear. The Steelers could allow Mike Adams to compete with Gilbert during training camp, postponing any contract extension until just before the season starts. Such a strategy would risk losing Gilbert if he decides to take his chances on the open market. Alternatively, the team could offer Gilbert a modest contract extension.

Pouncey is a difficult case. He leads the Steelers offensive line and is clearly its most athletic member. As a Pro Bowl center, however, he will command an annual salary of $7 million or more. He was injured for nearly the entire 2013 season, and the offensive line functioned reasonably well without him. In fact, two players off the street (Fernando Velasco and Cody Wallace) stepped into Pouncey’s role with little perceived downside. The Steelers will be tempted to allow Pouncey to accept a lucrative contract from some other team (e.g., Miami).

In most cases, when the team decides not to extend a player’s contract, that player remains a Steeler for the final year of their original contract, in many cases at a relatively low salary. As a first-rounder in his option year, however, Pouncey is slated to earn more than $5 million in 2014. For this reason, the Steelers could consider trading him for a third-round pick. Although keeping Pouncey until his free agency would probably result in a third-round compensatory pick, that pick would not come until the 2016 draft. Getting a third-rounder in 2014 would be much preferable, and the trade would provide sizable cap savings. Furthermore, trading Pouncey now would allow the team to maintain continuity by starting Wallace or Velasco at center in 2014.

Priorities for the 2014 Draft

Assuming the above scenario, the only starting position the team will need to fill at the end of 2014 would be Taylor’s CB spot. Thus, the team is likely to draft a CB in one of the first two rounds. If Polamalu or Cortez Allen is not extended, the team will need to draft an additional defensive back.

Another contract the Steelers must consider is that of LaMarr Woodley. The oft-injured OLB is signed through 2016 at a huge salary, but cutting him this offseason would result in an even bigger dead-money charge. Furthermore, unless it is somehow able to resign Worilds, the team has no viable replacement. Thus, the most likely scenario is that Woodley remains a Steeler in 2014. However, if the team wants to get out from under the Woodley contract, it could use a high draft pick on an OLB. This move would signal that Woodley will be cut after the 2014 season, when his dead money will be smaller and a new starter is ready to go.

Don’t expect big changes this offseason. Rather than cutting several expensive veterans, the team is more likely to part ways with its free agents and retain as many other players as possible. As SteelCityRoller demonstrated in his excellent Play Money series, the team can easily get under the salary cap by cutting T Levi Brown and extending/restructuring the contracts of Miller and Polamalu (as noted above) as well as QB Ben Roethlisberger and possibly WR Antonio Brown and LB Lawrence Timmons. Trading Pouncey for a third- or even fourth-round draft choice would avoid some of the restructuring, opening cap space in 2015 for the new Gilbert and Allen contracts, among others.

Any new contracts will be announced over the next several weeks, bringing the team into cap compliance by the March 11 deadline. At the draft, look for the Steelers to take an OLB and a CB in the first two rounds, possibly followed by an NT (to replace Hood), S (to replace/backup Polamalu), or WR (to replace Cotchery in 2015) in the next rounds. These needs could change depending on which players get contract extensions before the draft. What won't change is that Colbert's draft will focus on bringing in 2015 starters, not 2014 starters.

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