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Steelers contract extension candidates: Which players are in line to receive new deals?

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The Steelers have some salary cap space, and may be clearing it up in order to retain a few veterans on longer term deals.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers cleared cap space through the restructuring of contacts of Marcus Gilbert and Mike Mitchell, and one is expected to be finalized for Maurkice Pouncey this week. Upon completion of that, the Steelers will have trimmed roughly $10 million in cap space, and reportedly will not sign or tag outside linebacker Jason Worilds before the start of free agency March 10.

So what are they doing with it?

While it's possible they simply felt the trio deserved a bonus of some kind, it would seem the Steelers are trying to free up some cap space in order to sign a player or two in free agency. The money isn't enough to think they should be expected to make as many moves as they did in 2014 (they signed seven free agents, including Mitchell, for a combined $38 million in total dollars). It is enough, however, to bang out a few extensions.

Here are a few Steelers' players in line for a contract extension this offseason.

We're lumping pending free agents in with this group as well, even though they aren't technically contract extensions.

Extend

Ben Roethlisberger

The Steelers asked Roethlisberger to wait a year on his extension last season, and he led the team's offense to its greatest production in franchise history. Odds are good that won't be forgotten.

He's poised to land another $100 million contract after having earned the most money off a $100 million contract in NFL history. With a cap number of $18.395 million, part of which bolstered by a prorated bonus of $6.79 million but a salary of just $11.6 million, an extension is a foregone conclusion.

While it's the most important roster move the Steelers will make this offseason, it's not one of the most influential in terms of this year's cap. The $6.79 million bonus has already been paid, and needs to be counted on the cap, so that automatically goes against it while not being new money. His $11.6 million salary can easily serve as a baseline for him in terms of his expectations in a new deal.

The only way the team would save cap money would be to get his base salary down in a deal that would give him new bonus money. Since a signing bonus is guaranteed (and paid immediately) to a player, but can be spread equally over up to five years of a contract, the Steelers' best bet may be to simply bite the bullet and guarantee him money, but in the form of yearly roster bonuses, much like Green Bay did with Aaron Rodgers.

The Packers gave Rodgers a $33 million signing bonus, cut into one cap hit of $7 million in 2014 and four consecutive hits of $6,650,000 for the following years. The Packers gave him huge roster bonuses - $9.5 million in 2014 and $10.1 million in 2015 - along with tiny roster salaries in 2013-15. That keeps his cap number lower than most at the top of the cap list among his position.

It's a risk to give Roethlisberger that kind of a deal (Rodgers was 30 when he signed it, Ben turns 33 on Monday), but no more of a risk than carrying a large cap number to a low salary, and especially not as much a risk as the team would face without having Roethlisberger on the roster.

Cameron Heyward

Heyward is scheduled to play the 2015 season on his one-year club option for an average of the top 10 players at his position - $6.9 million. The team is able to tear that deal up and sign him to a new one, but it would seem Heyward would be more interested in signing a long-term deal that will give him at least $6.9 million guaranteed in 2015.

Heyward's play on the field probably puts him in the range of around $10-13 million overall in guaranteed dollars. Signing a five-year deal with the team now over five years with a $13 million signing bonus would put him on par with Arizona's Calais Campbell and Tennessee's Jurrell Casey.

Can he successfully argue he's on par with those players? It's possible, and for a team that really isn't spending anything (pending the Roethlisberger deal) in the next two years, he's in a good position to negotiate.

Antonio Brown

He's being well-compensated, but not at the level of a player with 229 catches and 3,200 yards the last two seasons.

One restructure of a player's contract has good merit; it frees up immediate cap space, gives a player a reward without giving them new money and it only affects the cap in the same way it would if the player signed an extension. In other words, for the right player, it makes sense. If the Steelers only had one "right" player, it's Brown.

The problem with multiple restructures over a contract is it leads to situations like the team has with Roethlsiberger right now. He's owed a relatively small base salary in comparison to his peers, but he's still counting for a high level against the cap. Translation: The team has to account for a huge amount of money while the player isn't being paid much.

Rock, meet hard place.

Another restructure for Brown would eventually lead them to that spot. He already has cap charges of $9.7 million, $12 million (2016) and $10.8 million (2017). If they want to restructure his deal again, which they could, it seems it'd be best to just extend him if possible. Brown is the most prolific receiver in the NFL over the past two seasons, and has been the tip of the spear for the Steelers' offensive explosion over the last season and a half. He would command the same dollars Denver's DeMaryius Thomas and Dallas's Dez Bryant will this offseason if they reach the open market.

Odds are less likely he'll get an extension, but fans can feel free to cringe if they convert part of his $6 million base salary into another bonus. With just two years on the deal beyond this season, his cap numbers for the next two years would be huge while having no guaranteed money left and with salaries befitting a player producing 60 percent of what Brown is at the most.

Jason Worilds

It's been reported the Steelers will let Worilds test free agency - a common move for the Steelers with veteran players who are facing unrestricted free agency.

Worilds is an interesting case study in terms of value. The Eagles were allegedly prepared to make him an offer last year when he was scheduled to hit free agency. He and the Steelers couldn't come to terms on a deal, so the Steelers slapped the transition tag on him, paying him a guaranteed $9.75 million. The risk in doing that was if Worilds exploded in 2014, he'd have his choice of suitors willing to pay him around $16 million guaranteed over a long-term deal.

That did not happen.

On the high end, Worilds can probably command around $7 million a year and probably $12-13 million guaranteed over a five year deal. The Steelers aren't likely to want to pay that, but as Dejan Kovacevic has reported multiple times, Worilds really wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps that means he'd be willing to take something like $9 million guaranteed over a five-year deal for $25 million in total value.

That may end up happening.

William Gay

He's been easily the team's most reliable cornerback the last two seasons, and could find himself the recipient of a two-year extension beyond the 2015 season. He's locked in as a starting cornerback in 2015, and even though he turned 30 in January, it doesn't seem like he's slowing down.

The team already spent big money on Cortez Allen in 2014, and seem likely to address the position in the draft. That doesn't speak well to a long-term deal for Gay, but they may want to hold a veteran in place to help bolster depth at the position in future years.

Arthur Moats

He signed with the team in 2014 as an unrestricted free agent, and had a solid year as a back-up. He only played roughly 20 snaps a game, but still had four sacks, and looks to be a solid option to replace Worilds as the team's starting left outside linebacker. It wouldn't be surprising to see the team lock him up on a three-year deal with light guarantees and around $1.5 million per year on average.

Brice McCain

He's a solid slot cornerback, and with Gay's future as-of-now unknown, he'd be a good option to assume a starting role in 2016. His future contract may depend on what the team intends to do with Gay, but a three year deal similar to the numbers outlined for Moats wouldn't be a surprise.

Matt Spaeth

The veteran blocking tight end is likely to land a short deal, somewhere around $2 million over two years. The Steelers will need Spaeth to help bridge the gap between the current Heath Miller and the Next Heath Miller - tight end is likely a position they address with a high draft pick in 2015.

Spaeth is a dependable blocker, and with a revamped running game, his presence will be important in the immediate future. He left Pittsburgh once, having signed with the Chicago Bears in 2010, only to return to Pittsburgh upon his release in 2013.