By Alan Robinson
During team president Art Rooney II’s two post-season conversations to date, he made it obvious the Steelers have considerable work to do personnel-wise during the offseason.
Nothing will be more important than managing the salary cap.
Free agency begins March 11, and the Steelers, as usual, aren’t expected to be players for any difference-making free agents — the kind that command the type of salary the Steelers can’t afford. (See Mike Wallace, $60 million, or Keenan Lewis, $26 million.)
This week, Rooney said the Steelers will attempt to re-sign some of their 21 unrestricted free agents — the third-most in the league. The only teams with more are the Giants and Bears with 23 each.
The Browns, on the other hand, have a league-low five free agents– or as many All-Pro players as they have.
Five Steelers free agents are starters — Jason Worilds, Ryan Clark, Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel and Emmanuel Sanders — and, effectively, so is a sixth, Jerricho Cotchery, since he plays more than the fullback does in Todd Haley’s offense.
Cotchery and Worilds appear to be the most likely to return. Sanders and Clark are the most likely to leave. Hood, one of the lowest-rated defensive linemen in the NFL, also isn’t expected back. Neither is Keisel, who will be 36 next season — unless the Steelers are convinced they simply don’t have enough defensive line depth and he is willing to take a huge hometown discount.
Other free agents are Plaxico Burress, Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling, David Johnson, Michael Palmer, Fernando Velasco, Cody Wallace, Guy Whimper, Al Woods, Stevenson Sylvester, Jamaal Westerman, Will Allen, Mat McBriar and Greg Warren.
The Steelers have already signed a punter (Brad Wing) who could supplant McBriar. They also signed a long snapper (Bryce Davis), but Warren is consistently one of the best long snappers in the league and he provides a lot of comfort to both kicker Shaun Suisham and the punter. But Warren also makes ($840,000 last season) about what the kicker and punter do for some franchises.
The Steelers liked how Velasco filled in for the injured Maurkice Pouncey, and they would like to bring him back as a swingman-type backup. They also will try to re-sign Allen.
“There are probably a couple of guys we need to look at,” Rooney said. “Jason Worilds is certainly somebody who came on and showed what he can do, particularly over the second half of the season. The truth of the matter is there is a lot of work that needs to be done between now and making some of those final decisions.
“The new league year doesn’t start until March 11. Between now and then. we will be trying to make those decisions and having conversations with some of the players’ agents, seeing what we can work out. There’s no doubt we have a number of free agents ad we are going to want to keep.”
But, again, the key is how well the Steelers (or poorly) manage the cap.
Currently, they’re about $11 million over, but they’ll quickly whack $6,250,000 off that by cutting tackle Levi Brown, who was added after the Mike Adams fiasco in London but never got into a game. And, at least with the Steelers, he never will.
But, unless they make some dramatic moves — and, according to Rooney, cutting Troy Polamalu doesn’t appear to be one of them — they will have little flexibility to do much maneuvering at all.
The four teams that currently have the least amount of cap room are the Cowboys ($21,572,985 over), the Steelers ($11,727,398 over), Saints ($9,395,654 over) and the Lions ($4,912,206 over), according to Overthecap.com’s estimates.
The teams with the most cap room, and thus the flexibility to pursue players who can make an immediate impact, are the Raiders — who are a remarkable $64,705,390 UNDER the cap — the Jaguars ($53,023,075), Browns ($50,122,350) and Dolphins ($35,203,228).
So, as the moment, the Browns have nearly $62 million MORE cap space than the Steelers, or nearly half the 2013 cap ceiling of $123 million. The Bengals, who consistently go into free agency with considerable space, are $25,486,456 below the cap — a difference of about $37 million compared to the Steelers.
The Steelers are so cap-challenged each year, they’re constantly reworking contracts with their higher-paid players, but that only pushes those same cap issues ahead a year or two. For example, linebacker LaMarr Woodley’s restructurings in 2012 and 2013 created more than $14 million worth of dead money that counts against the Steelers’ cap, even if they cut him. Only two years ago, Woodley’s dead money was only about $4 million.
For comparison’s sake, other teams with plenty of cap room are the Redskins ($28,637,929), Packers ($28,158, 375), Bills ($27,459,097), Vikings ($24,293,568), Eagles ($21,614,691) and Jets ($21,657,558), according to Overthecap.com.
The Ravens, who did considerable roster shuffling after winning the Super Bowl last season, are $11,858,455 under the cap.
However, Rooney doesn’t think the Steelers’ cap situation is any more dire than in the recent past.
“It depends on how you define managing the cap,” he said. “To me, our goal is to put a competitive team on the field and I think, for the most part, we’ve managed to do that.”