The Pittsburgh Steelers have kept the core of their team together to make another Super Bowl run -- at a cost.
The NFL's busiest team this offseason, the Steelers whacked $25 million in three weeks by restructuring the contracts of five players. This got Pittsburgh under the cap this year, but the $25 million doesn't just disappear. The chunk of cap change gets spread over future years.
What it boils down to is this: The Steelers got themselves out of cap jail today by handcuffing themselves in the future. These moves are putting pressure on the Steelers to win now.
"As a former cap manager in the NFL for 10 years, I know that if you want to make something work for one year, you can," ESPN NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt said. "It’s just a question of how much pain are you pushing off to the future."
The first real pinch will come in 2013, when the Steelers could be anywhere from $10 million to $15 million over the cap depending on the limit next year. Add that to having three starters on offense becoming unrestricted free agents: wide receiver Mike Wallace (if he doesn't go elsewhere this year as a restricted free agent), running back Rashard Mendenhall and tight end Heath Miller.
Pittsburgh will have to either find cap room to re-sign these players, look for cheaper replacements in free agency or hope someone already on the roster can take their spots. Plus, wide receiver Antonio Brown becomes a restricted free agent in 2013, so the Steelers could be facing another Wallace situation all over again with a limited budget. It looks like there will be tougher decisions in 2013 than this year.
One alternative is to restructure more contracts, but that creates a vicious cycle. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger restructured for the second straight year, dropping his 2012 cap number from $16.92 million to $8.895 million. That simply increases Roethlisberger's cap number for the remaining four years of his contract (signed through 2015), making him a long-term cap burden.
"If it [the constant restructuring of contracts] didn’t catch up to them, then every team would not worry about doing this," Brandt said. "And most teams do worry about doing this."
What helps the Steelers is that the salary cap is expected to jump significantly in 2014 and beyond, perhaps as much as $30 million, with the new television contracts. That should help absorb a lot of the players' increased salary-cap numbers from the restructuring of Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Ike Taylor and Willie Colon.
But that also means other teams can spend more in signing free agents and retaining their own players than the Steelers. These restructured deals will put Pittsburgh at the bottom of the list in terms of cap room for the foreseeable future. It's true that the Steelers rarely throw around money in free agency. (Trivia question: Who was the last high-priced free agent signed by the Steelers?) The reason why has been Pittsburgh's success in drafting.
Teams that spend the most in free agency are the ones trying to fill holes that are created when a high draft pick fails to develop. The Steelers now have little room for error in their upcoming drafts because they won't have the same cap space to compete with other teams for free agents if they need to do so.
In the end, the Steelers are only temporarily capping their problems. Pittsburgh has to address the long-term answers at running back (Do they move in a different direction from Mendenhall?) and wide receiver (Can they keep Wallace, Brown or none at all?). The Steelers have to figure out the eventual replacements for aging veteran defensive players such as James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark.
But the bigger question that remains: Will they have enough cap space to find these answers?
"It’s hard to lock down that in 2013, they won’t be able to manage their team. Or in 2014, they’re going to have some real problems," Brandt said. "What has to be emphasized, though, is whatever the cap situation is league-wide, they are going to be in the most disadvantaged state."