Steelers face big salary cap problems

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is on track to start Sunday vs. Baltimore.

Before the Steelers sign any of their free agents or possibly go after those of other teams, they first will have to find ways to create the salary-cap room to do so — again.

The Steelers are $2.5 million over their projected salary cap, a league source with intimate knowledge of the cap told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That is in stark contrast with various public Internet sites that track each NFL team’s salaries.

Although those sites that estimate each team’s cap room place the Steelers under the cap by as much as $8 million, those calculations are off.

Not only that, the source indicates that the Steelers are over the projected NFL cap for each team of $153 million, approximately $8 million above the 2015 salary cap. The NFL and the NFL Players Association have not yet issued the salary cap for 2016. When they do so, usually early in March, it has been predicted that it will rise as high as $155 million. If so, the Steelers still would be over until they make roster moves or restructure contracts to be in compliance.

Their cap negates the $3 million they carried over from the end of last year because they “borrowed” virtually that much from their 2016 cap, as permitted by the CBA.

All NFL teams must be under their salary cap by 4 p.m. March 9, which is the start of the new NFL calendar year and also when teams can begin signing free agents. Teams can sign their own pending free agents before then, as well as those who were not on a team at the end of the 2015 season to “futures” contracts.

Only the top 51 salary-cap numbers of each player count in the offseason, although teams do not need to be in compliance until March 9.

“We will have work to do, as always,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said about the team’s salary-cap situation last month. “I think it’s a manageable situation, but we have decisions to make. We have a lot of players that we need to sign. So, those are the kinds of decisions we make. We will probably have some players that we would like to extend their contracts. I am sure it will be like most years where we will have to manage the cap and make some decisions.”

The Steelers find themselves in familiar territory, having been over the projected cap in February for a number of years. They have a little less than a month to get under it, as all teams must.

Restructuring possible: They might not have many obvious contract restructures available this time. In those cases, the Steelers turn part of a player’s 2016 salary into a bonus, which would then count evenly pro-rated annually over the life of the contract. That would save room in the current year by enlarging the players’ cap hits for the rest of his contract.

They could still do that with Ben Roethlisberger, who has a $17.75 million salary in 2016 and a cap number of nearly $24 million this year. Here is an example of how that would work:

Roethlisberger has four years left on his contract. The Steelers could take, say, $16 million of his 2016 salary and turn it into a bonus that would then count $4 million annually against the cap for the rest of his contract. Roethlisberger would still be paid the same, but the accounting change would reduce the team’s 2016 cap hit by $12 million, although increase it by $4 million each of the following three years.

The contract of safety Mike Mitchell, who has a $5 million salary in 2016 and is signed through 2018, also could be redone to create cap space. But there are not many players in that category anymore because they do not have large 2016 salaries that would represent worthwhile savings if converted into signing bonuses.

Linebacker Lawrence Timmons has an $8.75 million salary for 2016, but it is the final year of his contract. The only ways to reduce his salary-cap hit would be to sign him to an extension, have him take a salary cut — or release him.

They have other choices.

They can wipe out $6.8 million of cap space by releasing cornerback Cortez Allen ($4.4 million salary) and kicker Shaun Suisham ($2.4 million) — but would have to do so with a June designation in order to reap those savings this year. If they are released with a June designation, the Steelers will not have their cap savings available to use until June. And, if released before then, those two players’ entire pro-rated signing bonuses for the remainder of their contracts would come due this year, thus limiting the cap savings for 2016.

Understand that as one player is removed from the top 51 salaries, another must replace him on the accounting list. So barring expensive free-agent signings or new contracts, a $450,000 first-year minimum player could replace, say, Allen. So with Allen and Suisham, for example, the Steelers would actually create $5.9 million in cap room this year and not their $6.8 million in salaries.

Then there is the 2016 cap of $8 million in the books right now for offensive guard David DeCastro. That should be reduced when the Steelers sign him to a multi-year contract. By how much is a guess, because it will depend on how much they want him to count this year — and what the contract negotiations deliver. But if DeCastro were to receive a new five-year contract with, for example, a $12 million signing bonus, that would count $2.4 million annually to be pro-rated against the cap. Then add salaries and roster bonuses. Either way, his cap for this year easily can be reduced by $2 million, maybe even $3 million.

Club officials also face contract decisions that will increase their salary-cap number. Do they sign any of their free agents, such as tackle Kelvin Beachum, guard Ramon Foster, cornerback William Gay and nose tackle Steven McLendon? Extend running back Le’Veon Bell or others? Sign other teams’ free agents? Give Antonio Brown another $2 million advance on his 2017 salary as they did last year?

All that will eat into their cap room, if they have any left.