The first reaction among some Steelers fans when safety Troy Polamalu’s new, three-year contract was announced probably went something like this:
They gave a (soon-to-be) 33 -year-old safety who appears to be slowing down TWENTY million dollars?
Actually, they didn’t. In reality, the Steelers virtually assured that Polamalu will start and end his career with them, and at no additional cost than was previously budgeted.
They also freed up $4.5 million worth of salary cap space simply by shifting some numbers. By doing so, they also gave themselves an avenue to bring back Polamalu in 2015 — if he has the kind of season in 2014 than he had last season — for a relatively affordable $6 million base salary.
Here’s how they did it, according to figures on file with the NFLPA and first reported by the Baltimore Sun:
— Polamalu’s base salary of $8.25 million in 2014 (as negotiated in his last contract in 2011) was reduced from $8.25 million to $1.5 million. The remaining $6.75 million was converted into a guaranteed signing bonus that can be spread over the three-year life of the contract for salary cap purposes, or $2.25 million per season.
— Polamalu’s cap hit drops from $10.89 million (that $8.25 million salary, plus the $2,637,000 pro-rated share of his previous signing bonus) to $6,387,000 in 2014 (his $1.5 million base salary, the $2.25 million share of his new signing bonus and the $2,637,000 share of his former signing bonus, which does not go away for cap purposes). The cap charge will be only the eighth highest for an NFL safety, according to Spotrac.
— His base salaries the next two seasons (if he’s still playing) will be $6 million in 2015 and $5.75 million in 2016, with a salary cap charge of $8.25 million in 2015 and $8 million in 2016.
— The only additional financial burden taken on by the Steelers in the new deal — remember, Polamalu is guaranteed no more money than before — is that Polamalu’s dead money (which must be counted under the cap, regardless of whether he is on the team or not) is $9,387,000 for this season, $4,500,000 in 2015 and $2,250,000 in 2016. Previously, there was no dead money for 2015 and 2016 because Polamalu wasn’t under contract for those seasons.
So, other than incurring dead money that will count against the cap in 2015 or 2016 if Polamalu isn’t playing any longer, the Steelers aren’t taking on any additional financial burden by extending Polamalu.
Is he worth the money?
Based on Pro Football Focus’ player performance evaluations, he is.
While Polamalu’s skills have eroded some from his career peak during the Steelers’ 2008 Super Bowl-winning season, he remains one of the NFL’s best safeties — even though he often played out of position last season as an inside linebacker.
Pro Football Focus rated him as the Steelers’ best defensive player with a plus rating of 12.2; Cam Heyward was second at 11.3, William Gay was third at 11.1.
Polamalu also ranked FIFTH overall among all NFL safeties (ahead of players such as Jairus Byrd of Buffalo, Earl Thomas of Seattle and Antrel Rolle of the Giants), trailing only Devin McCourty of New England, Will Hill of the Giants, T.J. Ward of Cleveland and Eric Berry of Kansas City.
In pass coverage — an area where some Steelers fans appear to believe Polamalu has slipped — he was SECOND in the league with a 13.9 rating, trailing only McCourty (14.1). Berry and Thomas were immediately behind him. According to Pro Football Focus, he gave up 25 catches for 20 yards and one touchdown; a good chunk of that yardage came as he allowed for 92 yards and a touchdown in the 55-31 Steelers loss at New England.
Polamalu ranked 24th in run coverage, in part because he was needed at times to fill in for the injured Larry Foote at inside linebacker.
Of the 1,093 snaps he played — or every one by the Steelers’ defense last season — Polamalu was in pass coverage on 599 plays and run coverage on 443 plays, meaning he was used to defends the run 40 percent of the time he was on the field.
And while the general consensus was the Polamalu was used against the run more often than in the past, he was also in run coverage 40 percent of the time in 2011, his last full season before 2013. That season, he was in pass coverage for 556 of 980 plays, and in run support 392 times.
Despite being named to an eighth Pro Bowl, Polamalu was uncertain of his future with the Steelers when the season ended — in part because the franchise has a policy of not discussing contracts while a season is ongoing.
He wanted to end his career in Pittsburgh yet he wanted to keep playing, and he was uncertain what he would do if the Steelers decided they simply couldn’t have afford him any longer. He acknowledged to the Tribune-Review that he might consider retirement under such a scenario.
Now, at least for a season, there is no more uncertainty.
“The great thing about it (the 2013 season) as far as Troy was concerned was that he played all 16 games,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said in January. “That’s very helpful for us when we have a player like Troy who’s able to stay healthy and play start to finish. He obviously has been one of the great Steelers of all time, and we would love to have him retire here and expect that he will.”
Now, it appears much more likely that he will.