The Steelers currently sit at around $10 million dollars over the mandatory salary cap. To meet NFL rules they must meet the salary cap by March 8th. This gives the team just under three weeks to rectify their salary cap issues as well as open up room for signing their own, and other teams, free agents.
The first plan will be to continue restructuring contracts of players currently on the roster. Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller have all been mentioned as potential candidates for contract restructuring. Roethlisberger, Harrison and Polamalu could all potentially save the team around $4 million dollars against the cap in 2012. The saved money in restructured contracts is then pro-rated over a certain number of years. The player gets the money up front and the bonus is broken up into the future to lessen each year’s cap hit. If all four of these players were to restructure the Steelers could save around $13-14 million in 2012 and be under the salary cap with a bit of breathing room, but not much.
After restructuring with who they can they will move to the harder decisions. Do not be surprised to see well known players get cut in the coming weeks. These players include: Hines Ward (cap savings of $3+ million), Casey Hampton (cap savings of $3+ million), James Farrior (cap savings of $3+ million), Larry Foote (cap savings of $2+ million), Aaron Smith (cap savings of $2+ million), Willie Colon (cap savings of $3+ million), and Chris Kemoeatu (cap savings of $3+ million).
These players will all likely be approached with the decision to take a pay cut, restructure, or to be released. Hines Ward has made it known that he is willing to take a pay cut to retire as a Steeler. This pay cut would still save around $2 million dollars and be a good compromise if the Steelers want him back. Casey Hampton and Willie Colon have expressed no interest in taking less money or giving a “hometown discount” and with both players coming off injury they could both be cap casualties.
Aaron Smith has been unable to stay healthy in recent years and is expected to be a retirement candidate. If he wants to keep playing it is unlikely it will be with the Steelers; especially with Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward ready to step in.
Farrior and Foote have been mainstays on the Steelers defense for quite some time, outside of the one year Foote spent in Detroit, but both are getting up there in age and have lost a step. Foote would be welcome back at a lower salary to start alongside Lawrence Timmons or to be the back-up ILB. However, at their current salaries both players will likely be cap casualties opening the position for Stevenson Sylvester or a draft pick.
Kemoeatu was benched multiple times in 2011 and at his salary is very likely to be gone. Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky have outperformed Kemo and make far less in terms of salary. Kemo also does not seem the type to restructure or take a pay cut to help the team.
The final course of action will be player evaluations for everyone on the team. Players that the Steelers believe they could replace, in terms of production, with a draft pick or rookie free agent will likely be gone. This will deplete the number of high quality back-ups on the roster, but that is the position the Steelers are currently in with the number of high paid players on the roster. They will also have to find a way to resign receiver Mike Wallace, who could demand over $9 million a year, who is the teams number one priority this off-season according to GM Kevin Colbert.
The Steelers will restructure a few more contracts and save themselves around $10 million dollars.
Hampton, Kemoeatu, Smith, and one of Farrior and Foote will be gone saving close to another $10 million dollars.