Cap crunch: Steelers' star power creates unique free-agency challenge

Will the Steelers break the bank to retain Le'Veon Bell? Joe Robbins/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH -- Armed with $53 million in cap space to chase Kirk Cousins, the Minnesota Vikings are in a different spot than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are pressed against the cap ($1.2 million in space) once again.

But both teams have a similar business model when it comes to rewarding star players -- preferably those they drafted -- with massive contracts. The Vikings and Steelers are the NFL's only teams entering free agency with five players tied to contracts worth $50 million or more, with both considering adding a sixth with Cousins and Le'Veon Bell, respectively.

The equation begs the question: How many star players can a team pay in today's game?

The Vikings haven't felt the cap crunch but undoubtedly will in 2019, when Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are unrestricted free agents. The Steelers know the feeling, having locked up stars Antonio Brown, David DeCastro and Stephon Tuitt to contracts worth up to $186 million since August 2016, only to restructure all of their contracts over the past six weeks.

The "Killer Bs" trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Brown and Le'Veon Bell ($14.544 million franchise tag) comprise $45.7 million of the Steelers' 2018 cap, and that's after Brown converted his salary and roster bonus into signing bonuses to save the team $9.7 million.

Even as the salary cap has grown by $10-plus million in each of the past few years, one thing has to go right for this formula to work: Good players must validate their big price tags.

They usually do in Pittsburgh. As salary-cap specialist Ian Whetstone points out, the Steelers have paid out 88 percent of the $774,826,457 in contracts they've awarded to "homegrown" players since 2002. In other words, they aren't cutting players they deem worthy of big money.

This is a good problem to have, but it is also a crutch. The Steelers stay under the cap by restructuring many of these deals and by pushing money to the final years of their contracts. If those players age poorly, the cap hit can be enormous. The kick-down-the-line strategy works for a team considered one of the best at drafting and developing. Other teams would gladly exchange a bunch of good players for a few accounting challenges that can be manipulated with a good salary-cap guru.

Still, this year is presents a special kind of cap crunch for Pittsburgh, with 12 players on the books for at least $5 million in cap charge in 2018 (pending changes, such as the imminent release of safety Mike Mitchell):

Ben Roethlisberger: $23.2 million

Le'Veon Bell: $14.544 million

Cam Heyward; $12.456 million

Joe Haden: $11.916 million (the Steelers were thrilled to sign Haden in August, but they didn't plan for this hit on their books seven months ago)

Maurkice Pouncey: $10.551 million

Ryan Shazier: $8.718 million

Mike Mitchell: $8.1 million

Antonio Brown: $7.955 million

Alejandro Villanueva: $7.625 million

Marcus Gilbert: $7.358 million

David DeCastro: $5.687

Stephon Tuitt: $5.432 million

That $123.542-million total is nearly 70 percent of the Steelers' current cap value, with the majority of the roster fleshed out by rookie contracts and role-player deals.

With much of that money tied to "safe" options such as quarterback and linemen, Bell's negotiations this summer will reveal if the Steelers have a tipping point. Teams rarely carry three large, non-linemen contracts on offense, in part because of the depressed running back market that Bell is trying to save.

If the Steelers pay Bell, they would be staying true to their top-heavy ways, rewarding their best players regardless of position.