Estimated 2015 Cap Space: -$2.63M ($140M cap limit)
Players Under Contract: 61
Pro Bowlers: 5
Unrestricted Free Agents: 11(2 with 50%+ playtime)
Draft Selection: 22
Salary Cap Breakdown
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.
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.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.