The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't in any worse or better shape under the salary cap than they have been in recent seasons despite the recent releases of starters James Harrison and Willie Colon for cap reasons, according to team president Art Rooney II.
In an interview Thursday, Rooney said putting together a roster that wins games yet remains under the NFL salary cap is like a "jigsaw puzzle -- you have to figure out how to put the pieces together in the best way you can, and shaping the contracts is a big part of that."
"You've got to have players with contracts that fit within the whole system, fit within the cap," Rooney said. "It's a challenge every year. Obviously some years you have to make decisions on players like we've had the last couple of years -- not easy decisions, not fun decisions, but by the same token every year you have to make them."
So far, the Steelers have lost top receiver Mike Wallace (Dolphins) and former 1,000-yard rusher Rashard Mendenhall (Cardinals) to other teams, and cornerback Keenan Lewis could follow. They also have made no effort to bring back left tackle Max Starks, who played every offensive snap last season, or nose tackle Casey Hampton. Last year, they didn't bring back linebacker James Farrior, wide receiver Hines Ward and defensive end Aaron Smith, partly for cap reasons.
The Steelers were above the $123 million cap before cutting Harrison and Colon and renegotiating a number of contracts, including those of Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Brown. But while the Steelers will save $5.5 million of cap room this season by cutting Colon, they must count $4.3 million in dead money against next year's cap to cover the Colon contract.
General manager Kevin Colbert talked recently about the need to make sure the Steelers don't have "credit card bills" that come due in the future -- too much cap room eaten up by players no longer with the team -- but Rooney apparently doesn't believe the Colon situation will result in that.
"Every year you have to make decisions like that. You obviously have to look ahead to what the implications are going to be in years beyond this," Rooney said. "It's a multi-year kind of decision process, but it's going to be an ongoing process. We're in this system, the salary cap system, and the current projections are the cap is not going to be increasing in any dramatic fashion over the next couple of years,. I think we're in that world where we have to live with these kind of decisions every year."
Rooney said the Steelers have not ruled out bringing in any more players under free agency -- to date, they've added only backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski -- and are studying what's still available. Visiting with them Thursday was Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler.
"It's just begun and we will continue to look for opportunities to improve our roster," Rooney said. "It's a busy time with a lot of activity and our scouting and coaching staffs are spending a lot of time preparing for the draft and going to pro days. That's a big part of the time right now. We'll be looking at opportunities, if there are some, to add players to the roster where it makes sense, where we can improve."
Coach Mike Tomlin, for example, was at Michigan State's pro day earlier this week and was in Morgantown for West Virginia's pro day on Thursday.