Best and Worst Contracts 2016: Pittsburgh Steelers

We wrap up our look at the AFC North today with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Starting tomorrow or Saturday will be the AFC South, which we will kick off with the Texans.

Best: Antonio Brown, 5 years, $41.9 million, $8.5M guaranteed

I was a bit conflicted with this choice because if you go back to 2012 when this was signed Brown had one 1,100 yard season and his other year in the NFL produced less than 175 yards. Brown was a 6th round pick so it’s not as if he was a can’t miss prospect and he was not considered the number 1 receiver on the team at the time. That distinction went to Mike Wallace who was feuding with Steelers management over a contract. In many ways this contract was considered to be something of a message to Wallace that the Steelers were prepared to move on and he needed to report. So in many ways this was a risky contract. Continue reading Best and Worst Contracts 2016: Pittsburgh Steelers »

2016 Cap Analytics: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers possess six contracts – Timmons, Brown, Pouncey, Miller, Mitchell and Gilbert – that include more prorated signing bonus in 2016 than scheduled at the time of signing due to cap-related restructurings, a number that few teams can match.  The team’s salary cap management approach clearly skews toward maximizing the current roster at the potential expense of future rosters, an approach that creates a greater pressure to draft successfully than is faced by most teams.

Continue reading 2016 Cap Analytics: Pittsburgh Steelers »

@ZackMooreNFL on Cameron Heyward via USA Today’s new Steelers Site!

@NealCoolong, formerly of Behind the Steel Curtain, now runs a Steelers website under the USA Today banner named, which is now the #1 spot for Steelers information on the Internet. He recently contacted me about answering some cap related questions about the Steelers for a piece. It’s a very interesting move by USA Today to have a site like this for each team and I think it’s a great idea for them to help build a credible voice in each marketplace, so I hope they continue to expand on this. Continue reading @ZackMooreNFL on Cameron Heyward via USA Today’s new Steelers Site! »

Steelers 2015 Salary Cap Outlook

Estimated 2015 Cap Space: -$2.63M ($140M cap limit)

Roster Overview

Players Under Contract: 61
Pro Bowlers: 5
Unrestricted Free Agents: 11(2 with 50%+ playtime)
Draft Selection: 22

Salary Cap Breakdown

Steelers 2015 Salary Cap

Steelers 2015 Offensive Spending

Steelers 2015 Defensive Spending

Free Agents to Re-sign

I am not sure that a compelling case can be made to really keep any of the notable free agents on the roster. Brice McCain likely makes the most sense to keep as he played decently and is only 28 years old. McCain played for the minimum last season but should cost more than that this season. Probably best to sign a deal before free agency begins as I could see some worry about the cornerback market being dragged up because of the lack of talent available both in free agency and the draft…James Harrison played well in his role last year but will be 37 years old. If he is willing to do another minimum salary contract there is no downside risk, but it can’t be anything more than the minimum….Arthur Moats was a good situational rusher last year and should not cost much to keep on another one year deal. He shouldn’t receive much buzz in free agency especially since the field looks to be loaded this season.

Free Agents to Let Walk

The Steelers need to be very careful with Jason Worilds. Worilds is one of the most difficult types of players to work with on a long term deal because he can be terribly inconsistent and is not a top end pass rusher. But he shows more than enough flashes that he will draw interest in free agency. Given that the Steelers used the transition tag on him last season and he virtually had the same year as he did in 2013, he has no reason to really accept less than that number, and that’s too big a number to pay him…The Steelers took a shot on keeping Ike Taylor last year at a heavily discounted rate, but he only played in 5 games last season. There are not many players in the NFL that continue paying corner at his age (last year the others were T. Newman and R. Mathis) so this may be the end of the line for him.

Contracts to Modify

The first order of business for the Steelers really should be addressing the contract on Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is in the final year of his contract and the Steelers need to strike before either one of the young players (A. Luck or R. Wilson) signs a new contract to further push an overpriced QB market and before Eli Manning or Philip Rivers sign new contracts. While Roethlisberger has a $18.395 million cap number they shouldn’t use this extension as a way to bring that number significantly down. Designing a contract that works well for the next four seasons from a cap perspective should be the prime objective….Cameron Heyward has now put up back to back quality seasons after floundering his first two years. He has a $6.969 million figure this year and will be a free agent next season. He will only be 26 this year so locking him up seems like a good decision. They could hold off into the summer, which is the standard timing for the Steelers, but they might gain some cap flexibility doing it earlier….The team might consider converting salary into bonus money for wide receiver Antonio Brown. While he is dramatically underpaid he is likely one more season away from considering trying to force his way into a new contract. They can create around $3.5 million in cap room with the restructure…Lawrence Timmons might be considered for a restructure as well, but he only has one more season remaining past this one which limits the savings of the restructure. If they need to bring his $12.5 million cap figure down they need to begin the process of a signing him to a 3 year extension…Starting defensive tackle Steve McLendon is in the final year of his contract and could be considered for an extension.

Players to Consider Releasing

Pittsburgh will have a tough decision to make on Safety Troy Polamalu who has an $8.25 million cap charge and $6 million salary.  The Steelers extended Polamalu last season, but it was really a salary cap deferral written up as a new contract. Polamalu does not have the impact that he used to and he may even consider retirement. Releasing him would save the Steelers $3.75 million in cap room. If he doesn’t retire I would expect the team to approach him on a pay cut that is equal to the savings if released, but I believe that they will go into this thinking his days in Pittsburgh are over…The Steelers signed Cortez Allen to a new contract last season worth around $6 million a season and he was awful.  The Steelers only guarantees in their deals are typically signing bonus money so they may consider cutting Allen to avoid paying him another $5.63 million this year. Cutting him saves the team $1.58 million….The team had another miss when they surprisingly hit free agency to sign Mike Mitchell for $5 million a season. Mitchell will earn $4 million this year and was poor in coverage last year.   His release saves the team $1.15 million….The team has a number of players like veteran receiver Lance Moore and QB Bruce Gradkowski that save the team around $1.5 million if cut.

Offseason Plan

Pittsburgh is a very hard team to get a handle on. Last year there were weeks where they looked like the best team in the NFL.  There were also weeks where they lost to some of the worst teams in the NFL. They are plagued by inconsistency and their defense is in need of an overhaul.

Due to a combination of injuries and ineffective play the Steelers only had four defensive players start at least 14 games. That list includes Worilds, who is a free agent, and Mitchell, who struggled. Only 7 started more than 10 games.

As is typical for the Steelers they will be right up against the salary cap this season and have to scramble to make some space. Restructuring Brown should make them cap compliant and moving on from Polamalu will give them a little bit of breathing room. Cutting a few backups should put them around $8 million in space and that is with keeping Allen and Mitchell if they don’t believe they can upgrade them in the draft.

I would not expect much activity in free agency for the Steelers given what seems to be limited resources, plus in general they are not a big free agent splash kind of team. Expect the team to go bargain hunting for veterans or players coming off a rookie contract that were considered disappointments and not generating much interest.

The draft is where the Steelers will make their mark and hope to build on their 11-5 season. The offense is pretty well situated but I would expect the Steelers to go heavy looking for help in the secondary as well as new additions to the linebacker rotation. Their offense should be good enough to let the team have a transitional year defensively to get as many new, young faces in as possible to build the next chapter for the franchise.

Steelers Links

Steelers Salary Cap Pages

Steelers Free Agents

Steelers Contracts

Steelers GM Salary Cap Calculator

Other Offseason Salary Cap Reports

Steelers Free Agent Simulator

A Closer Look at Marcus Gilbert’s Contract Extension

I usually try to take a little deeper look at the contracts on the site and wanted to do the same with the contract of Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert since I had a few questions about him. I think the prevailing analysis is that he received $6 million a year in new money which places him in a logjam for fourth highest compensated right tackle in the NFL. But when you look closer at the numbers I think a strong case can be made that in a true contract valuation Gilbert is going to be the highest paid right tackle in the league.

There are two considerations that should come into valuing a contract. The first is the yearly cash flow component that shows the was that the salary is actually distributed. Is it a heavily front loaded contract?  Is it backloaded?  Is it a steady stream of salary?

The following table provides the cumulative money that each player will earn over the course of his contract. Each cell is color coded to indicate the likelihood of the money being earned. Green means its essentially guaranteed, yellow is a year where it is probably 50/50 that it is earned, and red means don’t start counting that money until you get that far into the contract.

Right Tackle Market

The first thing that jumps out to me is how strong the frontside of Gilbert’s contract is. Only Cherilus will earn more in year one, but over the first two and three years of the contract no player will earn more than Gilbert, despite the fact that Cherilus, Loadholt, and Davis all earn more on an annual basis.


Gilbert actually received a higher signing bonus than everyone on the list except Cherilus, though Loadholt’s signing bonus is effectively more since he signed for four years rather than five. Because of that his contract is as well protected as almost anyone else on the list.  The exceptions are Cherilus and Howard, and in both cases the protections they received may have been a team error. In the case of the Oakland Raiders it was clearly an error (they paid Howard a roster bonus too soon which turned it into a signing bonus). The Colts got hit with a little known rule called the 50% rule that turned Cherilus’ signing bonus from $10 million to $14.5 million for accounting purposes. I tend to think Indianapolis simply did not pay attention to the rule but that is just a baseless opinion.

All things considered I think you can make a strong case that Gilbert received either the best or second best contract at the position based on expected earnings. Does that make it a bad contract for the team?  I guess it depends on your perspective. Gilbert is the second youngest of the group to sign so there is a greater upside for him to perform well.  His deal also reflects the large cap increase that was not in play when Cherilus, Davis, and Loadholt signed.


Negatively the contract did not offer anywhere near the protections that the 49ers insisted on received from Davis.  It did not have the no bonus provision of the Collins contract, which was also supposed to be the structure of the Howard contract.  So I do think it’s fair to say the Steelers could have asked for more concessions considering he and Davis are the only players under a true extension where the teams held contractual leverage over the player at the time of signing.

I don’t think that the $6 million a year figure is necessarily too high, which is something I have read in a few spots. While he doesn’t have a huge track record and has never stood out in Pro Football Focus the way others have, he is a logical comparison to other limited sample players like Collins and Howard who both earned $6 million a year as free agents. As a 2nd rounder he also carries much more cache than the other two which will play a role.

The Steelers were not going to be able to lowball him into a $4 million  per year contract. For that to eventually happen they would have had to wait out the year, a portion of free agency, and kept crossing their fingers that nobody bites. Again seeing what Howard received on the market it’s unrealistic to think he could have gotten that much less.  So while they may have been able to work within the $6 million per year parameters more effectively coming in far under that dollar figure was never going to happen.




Best & Worst Contracts 2014: Pittsburgh Steelers


We continue our look at the best and worst veteran contracts on each team with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Best Contract: Heath Miller

Heath MillerIt was very tempting to select the contract of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the best on the Steelers. A true franchise quarterback making the market rate of six years ago presents an easy target, with only $23.7 million in cash due over the next two years combined. But, a few restructures have bloated the cap hits somewhat in these last years, though they still fall below what has become the going rate for even lesser quarterbacks since that time. And he’s likely looking at a new contract in line with that going rate no later than next off-season.

Mostly, though, it’s just not a very interesting pick. Heath Miller entered this off-season as one of six Steelers sporting a cap charge greater than $9 million, all of whom had to be considered strong candidates for contract adjustment of one sort or another to help Pittsburgh’s tight situation. Entering the final year of the big-money extension he signed in 2009, Miller stood to earn $6.02 million under that existing deal. Not only did he accept a two-year extension at a reduced rate—$4 million per year in new money, compared to $6.75 million per year under the previous deal—he took the deal while receiving no new money in 2014, nor guarantees beyond this season.

Miller played one of his least impressive pro seasons in 2013 as he recovered from an ACL tear suffered in late December of 2012. But as the 2013 season progressed, he rediscovered his rapport with Roethlisberger and cemented his importance to offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s designs. Even so hampered, Miller produced the 14th-most receiving yards by a tight end on fewer targets than any of the 13 players above him. Unlike many, Miller plays a true two-way game, a strong blocker in the Jason Witten mold with soft hands and an ability to get open, and serves as a quiet low-maintenance leader that every team could use.

The Steelers turned his slated $6.02 million base salary into a $1.02 million base, paying the remaining $5 million as a signing bonus over the two new years of the extension. At $4 million in base salary in each new season, Miller’s cap number now hovers around $6 million in all three years. There’s ample reason to believe that 2013 represented a speed bump on his return to form from injury, and at age 31, he stands a strong chance to play out the extension in its entirety as a valued and productive member of the team.

Worst Contract: Jason Worilds

Jason WorildsRush linebacker Jason Worilds enjoyed a good bit of opportunity over his first three years as injuries repeatedly struck the Steelers’ starters, but in those opportunities he produced very little. His few sacks mostly came when the defensive scheme left him uncovered, and he showed woefully little impact versus the run, especially compared to the stout duo of Harrison and Woodley.

Fortune smiled upon him, though, and presented his most extensive opportunity in his contract year of 2013, and he turned in what has handily been the best season of his young career. Moreover, he looked notably more effective on Woodley’s left side than he ever did filling in for Harrison on the right. Still, his performance fell well below the healthy standards of either of those two.

Needing to fill the void left by both of those far more accomplished linebackers, the Steelers elected to place the transition tag on Worilds prior to free agency this year. If you need any evidence how much more the $9.754 million tender offered than Worilds is actually worth, look no further than how quickly he signed it rather than exercise his right to shop himself to 31 other teams. His agent had ample time to feel out the market prior to free agency, and I see no chance that he jumped on the tender with anything like Paul Kruger’s inflated $8.1 million a year available elsewhere.

In my estimation, with just half of a pretty good season under his belt in four years, Worilds was looking at no more than $6.5 million per year on a long-term deal. Now with the leverage of the tender, he has limited incentive to take a reasonable deal, so they’ll likely have to overpay significantly if they want to retain him long-term. And if they don’t retain him long-term, they’ll have overpaid significantly for a single season from a player who has been mediocre at best to this point.

I often hear a sentiment that a one-year deal can’t be all that bad, as it only runs for that short term and offers an opportunity for a clean break. But how much overpayment is that really worth? A long-term deal may have required somewhat more guaranteed dollars, in the range of 150% to double the transition tag amount, but at least such a deal offers long-term upside. A one-year tender only protects against the very worst of possible outcomes: that the player performs so badly that the team wants to cut ties after just a year. In just about any other case, it will prove to have been considerably inferior.

2013’s Best and Worst Steelers Contracts:

2013 Best Contract: Ryan Clark (contract expired; signed with Redskins)

2013 Worst Contract: LaMarr Woodley (contract terminated; signed with Raiders)




On Maurkice Pouncey, Center Salaries, and How the Annual Value Can Be Misleading


With Maurkice Pouncey locked up and surpassing Alex Mack as the highest paid center in the NFL I thought it would be a good time to dissect the contracts at the top of the position and see why looking at annual value can sometimes be very misleading.

For the prior three years the Panthers’ Ryan Kalil has been the top earner at the center position. Carolina signed him to a six year contract in 2011 that would pay Kalil $49.116 million which worked out to be $8.186 million per year. It seemed like a number that would never be touched until the Jacksonville Jaguars offered Alex Mack a five year deal worth $8.4 million per year. Mack was a transition player so the Cleveland Browns matched the offer and made Mack the top paid in the game. That distinction did not last long as the Pittsburgh Steelers quickly signed Pouncey to a five year deal worth $8.827 million a season.

But numbers can sometimes be misleading and in the NFL we have to look at all kinds of aspects of a contract. To best compare apples to apples when looking at Pouncey’s contract we need to take into account the new money in the contract. This simple adjustment is made by adding Pouncey’s cash salaries in 2014 (the final year of his old contract) and 2015 (technically the first year of his new contract) and subtracting the money he was already going to earn in 2014.  For Pouncey that works out to be $15,636,625. Lets look at the five year cash flows for each player.

Year 1$15,636,625$10,000,000$19,000,000
Year 2$22,636,625$18,000,000$20,750,000
Year 3$30,136,625$26,000,000$30,750,000
Year 4$37,136,625$34,000,000$35,750,000
Year 5$44,136,625$42,000,000$41,366,000

There are a few things we should find interesting with this chart. The first one actually concerns Mack. Despite having the highest annual valued contract for a few months, this was an inferior contract to Kalil’s through the first four years of the contract. Considering the life of an NFL player is not the longest it would be pretty easy to argue that Kalil never really lost his standing as highest paid player at the position.

Between Pouncey and Kalil the results are a bit muddles. Kalil earned more in his first year than Pouncey, but Pouncey will exceed his cash flows in year two, only to trail him again in year three. Provided Pouncey gets to year four this is where he lays claim to being the highest paid player. That’s certainly not guaranteed.

Looking further into the contracts we need to look at two other factors when determining the true value of a contract and those factors are the guaranteed dollars and the dead money protections that come in the contract structure.  Teams do not like to pay players to not play on the team nor do they want to carry excessive salary cap charges for a player no longer on the team.  This further muddies the waters as to highest and not highest paid players.

Pouncey received no contract guarantees beyond a $13 million signing bonus that will be prorated through the fourth year of his contract. Mack received no signing bonus but did receive a full guarantee on his year one and two salaries. Kalil hit the jackpot receiving an $18 million signing bonus, prorated through the fifth year of his deal, and another $5 million bonus in the third year of his contract that would be prorated over the remaining four years of his contract.

Remember that money not yet accounted for on the salary cap or money owed accelerates onto the salary cap when the player is released. Here are the dead money charges that would be associated with releasing the player.

Year 1$10,400,000$18,000,000$19,000,000
Year 2$7,800,000$8,000,000$14,400,000
Year 3$5,200,000$0$15,800,000
Year 4$2,600,000$0$10,950,000
Year 5$0$0$6,100,000

These numbers paint an entirely different picture for the players. Pouncey’s contract is a little different in year one since his deal is an extension where proration begins in 2014, but I think its safe to say he would not be cut that year even though his protection is much less than the other two.

In year two Pouncey has the least secure contract for a few reasons. For Pouncey the $7.8 million dead figure represents money already paid to the player. If his play declined greatly their option is to save $7 million in real cash plus another $1.8 million in cap room. To see the magnitude of this I try to compare the savings to the players cap charge (this is the CSC ratio you see on the cap pages) where I’ll add the players cash plus cap savings and divide it by his salary cap charge. For Pouncey it’s a 0.92, which is close to the range where releasing a player is somewhat feasible.

Mack’s year two salary is protected by a guarantee so the Browns will be ambivalent on releasing him. They gain no cap and save no cash giving a 0.00 ratio. Kalil, assuming he was released before his year three guarantee kicked in, would cost the team $14.4 million in dead money which amounts to a loss of $9.05 million in cap room with a savings of just $1.75 million in cash. We don’t need to look at any ratio to realize Kalil is protected as well from release.

Mack loses almost all protection from that point forward (he has a vesting guarantee in year three but that would not save him from release), giving Pouncey more security from the dead money in his deal, but Pouncey would never come close to the security that Kalil has. Here are the yearly cap plus cash savings if the team released the player:

Year 1$3,200,000($8,000,000)($14,400,000)
Year 2$8,800,000$0($7,300,000)
Year 3$12,400,000$8,000,000($950,000)
Year 4$14,000,000$8,000,000$3,900,000
Year 5$14,000,000$8,000,000$9,982,000

When looking at these numbers we would consider Kalil’s three year payout “virtually guaranteed”. Pouncey and Mack’s are anything but. The magnitude of Kalil’s savings were so small in year four that payout would also likely be considered “virtually guaranteed”.  If the contracts are never touched there is no arguing who has the more valuable contract regardless of what the cash flows might say. Pouncey needs four years to best Kalil and the current contract structure is nowhere near as solid to make that happen.  In fairness to Pouncey he will likely get that protection since the Steelers, like the Panthers, over-rely on using yearly prorated bonuses to deal with their salary cap problems. Once that happens the dead money will soar thus reducing the cap savings the Steelers would see.

All of this doesn’t mean we should not consider Pouncey the highest paid (we should as the four year is significantly better than the four year for Kalil unlike Mack’s contract), but it should give some pause when we value the contract or criticize the Steelers for the final five year number. The goal for the next center to sign (likely Pouncey’s brother) is to exceed the $30.75 million paid over three years to Kalil or get significantly more virtual protection in the contract that matches the Kalil protection  That really sets a complete new standard when that happens.