Sunday, January 15, 2012

The 2012 Salary Cap May Be The Steelers Toughest Opponent

The Steelers 2011 season ended abruptly on January 8th and, for all intents and purposes, the 2012 season began. After going 12-4 for the third time in four seasons, an accomplishment unmatched by any other team in that period, the Steelers and their fans had high aspirations going into the post-season. Those aspirations, according to running back Isaac Redman, "got Tebowed."

Now the Steelers organization must look ahead to next season with several questions needing to be answered: Will Rashard Mendenhall and Max Starks be ready for the start of training camp? Will Chris Hoke, Aaron Smith and/or Hines Ward retire? Will there be salary cap room for the likes of James Farrior and Larry Foote, especially with consideration of the Rule of 51? How will they handle the contract of Casey Hampton considering what he is due to make next season? How will the questions surrounding the offensive line, including Willie Colon and the role Starks' injury will play, be answered? What about backup quarterback? Do the Steelers look for a future successor this year?

Several questions indeed. And I haven't even addressed anything NFL Draft related. I didn't mention free agency either. I mean that more so, though, from the standpoint of whom we could lose as opposed to whom we could possibly gain.

One thing that has been seen is that the Steelers have already started to put together the offseason roster. The Steelers signed practice squad players tight end Jamie McCoy, offensive lineman John Malecki and defensive end Corbin Bryant to three-year Futures contracts. I had John Malecki penned to this blog's final 53-man roster/practice squad prediction at the start of the season and all three did actually start the season on the practice squad. Bryant did actually see the 53-man roster once this past season, but was released the next week and re-signed to the practice squad once he cleared waivers. Also signed were tackle Trevis Turner, defensive back/special teamer Anthony Madison, wide receiver Jimmy Young, defensive tackle Kade Weston and quarterback Jerrod Johnson.

Regarding the items discussed in the beginning, there are many things to be considered moving forward. And the salary cap is what determines most of them.

The most immediate issue is Rule of 51 compliance, i.e having their top 51 salaries at or under the $125 million salary cap by the beginning of March. Being that the Steelers are still almost $20 million over the cap, this means there will be several cuts. Just to be clear, there are 44 players under contract for 2012 and the Steelers still need to fill the offseason 80-man roster. Plus, they have to tender their restricted and exclusive rights free agents as well. Several cuts. So, what does that mean for our beloved Steelers? Will those names we've come to depend upon be deleted by March 1st? How many will we see deleted by June 1st? More than we may realize may be gone sooner than later. Some of them may be brought back, but even that might be problematic.

Let's just go ahead, then, and look at the most likely roster moves with regard to contracts, age and health:

Casey Hampton - Big Snack will count about $8 million against the cap, he will be 35 and he has a torn ACL which was suffered in the playoff game against the Broncos. This one is a touch complex as Hampton is supposedly due a $1 million roster bonus in March. Might the Steelers come to some form of injury settlement with him to avoid this? They could save around $6 million with a conventional release before the paying of the bonus, so his knee injury plays heavily into this. Regardless, because of the contract situation and the injury he sustained, the best option may just be to eat the roster bonus, cut him by June 1st and then sign him back but at a substantially lower amount. But, that's just me...it isn't my money.

Hines Ward - We will absolutely know by March 1st how this scenario will unfold. Hines will by no means be back next year at the over $4.5 million he's currently due. It simply won't happen. He said he wants to play another year and would take a pay cut to do so. If so, the Steelers would have to completely tear up the current deal, cut him and then sign him back to some sort of veteran minimum contract. Hines is a no. 4 or 5 receiver anymore and his real role(s) would be locker room leader, receivers mentor and coach-on-the-field. Is that feasible? Look, I'm one of the biggest Hines Ward fans there is, check this blog for the articles written about him, but even I realize it may be time for him to simple hang up his cleats.

Chris Kemoeatu - Big Juicy was a big pain most of the season. His erratic play, stupid post-snap penalties, knee problems and $5 million cap hit will almost certainly sign his walking papers. I said in this blog in the aforementioned final 53-man roster prediction that when his head is in the game he is one of the best pulling guards in the game. I stand by that. There game film to prove that. But, his head just isn't seemingly in the game nearly enough. He was demoted during the season because of it. The next demotion will be off of the team. The question is when it'll happen. Because I do believe he would actually would save the Steelers more money if he is cut by June 1st as opposed to March 1st. So, keep your eyes open regarding this one.

James Farrior - This is a tough one, not just because I really like Potsie, but because of the lack of experience behind him. He would count around $3.8 million against the salary cap, but the Steelers could save over $2.75 million if they cut him by March 1st and re-sign him to the veteran minimum or so. Something has to figured out here so that Stevenson Sylvester can learn from Potsie as Sly assumes a bigger role throughout the season. Something similar could be said about Foote with regard to this, though. With that being said...

Larry Foote - Foote is right there with Farrior. He counts over $3.5 million against the cap and that simply won't happen. He'll need to restructure in order to be in Black and Gold next year, At the same time, though, he's only 32 while Potsie is 37. Will that play into which of them stays?

Jonathan Scott - Can I simply say, "Goodbye, JScott?" Please. Seriously, he gets rolled up more than Zig-Zags. Ben probably has nightmares because of this guy. This is $2.7 million the Steelers could better spend on...well, anyone.

Aaron Smith - The Unsung Hero. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Aaron Smith. There isn't anything bad that I can say about him. But, it's time to ride off into the sunset. His contract was restructured this year so that room could be made for the signing of Max Starks. So, he'll count almost $3 million against the cap. That won't happen, especially not after neck surgery. Thank you, Aaron, for all you did for the Steel.

Chris Hoke - He had the same surgery that Aaron Smith had and is in basically ths same boat as Aaron. It's time to part ways here also.

Bryant McFadden - I said at the beginning of the season that BMac wouldn't see a Steelers uniform next year unless it was from the other side of the line of scrimmage. I stand by that. He was demoted to special teams shortly after the season started, and for good reason: he got burned more than MJ in that 1984 Pepsi commercial. The guy is marginal at best. He's due $2.5 million against the cap and that's free money at this point. The Steelers could always bring him back for the veteran minimum at the start of camp for depth and special teams, but I hope not.

There you have it: the offseason, for the most part, in a nutshell. At least from the viewpoint of the salary cap situation. Not much to consider, is it? Now, about the NFL Draft...