Inside Slant: A peek at the Steelers' future

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
11:00
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The NFL isn't a year-to-year enterprise. It's moment-to-moment. A team's bleak present always seems to suggest a morbid future. Success implies indefinite good fortune.

And so it was Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Pittsburgh Steelers were sending all kinds of warning signs -- real or projected -- about the direction of their franchise. Their offense looked old, slow and ill-conceived. Their defense worked hard but implied no hints of the big-play capacity it perfected over the past decade. And with 14 games still remaining, at least one player reportedly was frustrated enough to confront a coach on the sideline.

Of course, the current panic enveloping the Steelers would dissipate if they can win at home Sunday night against the 2-0 Chicago Bears. (Remember: We're moment to moment around here.) So what I thought we should do is take a step back, look at their long(er)-term future and then broaden the discussion to the entire league.

Yes, coach Mike Tomlin did say Monday night that "I believe honestly that the answers are still in that" locker room. But at this point, what else would you expect him to say?

So for the moment, let's accept that the Steelers ultimately need to add speed and playmaking to their roster. The first thing we need to do is understand their capacity. As with any team, it's instructive to look at their future salary-cap structure to see what type of challenge they'll face in doing so.

The big chart to your right details the amount of cap space that each of the NFL's 32 teams are committed to for 2014. The Steelers have the fourth-highest total, at $125.3 million, a figure that is near and might already exceed the cap limit for next season. (The NFL typically announces annual cap numbers in March.)

Not unexpectedly, it means the Steelers will be one of the teams restructuring contracts and probably releasing some veterans to comply with the cap and eventually sign their draft class. If they want to pursue veteran players in free agency, they'll need to cut back further.

To be clear, the Steelers don't face an unsolvable crisis. The NFL average, after all, is $111.4 million in commitments. The Dallas Cowboys are in much worse shape and the San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams are all near them as well.

Nevertheless, the Steelers will face a number of difficult decisions and will have to cut away before they can add. When you look at the second chart, you see they have substantial cap commitments ($8 million and up) to seven veterans who have spent a combined 59 seasons on their roster. Four are longtime defensive stalwarts: Safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor, linebacker LaMarr Woodley and linebacker Lawrence Timmons. At the moment, those four players collectively count $47 million against the Steelers' 2014 cap. Their top seven highest cap commitments represent two-thirds of their total cap ($83.8 million).

When you combine that cap crunch with the pending free agency of defensive lineman Brett Keisel and safety Ryan Clark, you can see the possibility brewing of a substantially different roster next season. Such situations provide opportunity for teams who have drafted wisely to promote their younger and cheaper players. Those with relatively barren bottoms of the roster will struggle.

In the Steelers' case, they'll almost certainly need promising rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones to be ready to step into a full-time role by next season. Rookie defensive back Shamarko Thomas' development is important as well, as is that of receiver Markus Wheaton.

The cap numbers tell us the Steelers could be a much different looking team next season. Based on what we saw Monday night, however, that might not be a bad thing. At least for the moment.

A couple thoughts on some of the other 2014 cap commitments around the NFL:
  • The Cowboys' total is inflated in part because of quarterback Tony Romo's $21.8 million cap number next season. But defensive end/linebacker DeMarcus Ware is scheduled to count $16 million and cornerback Brandon Carr will count $12.2 million. That's $50 million for three players. Add on tight end Jason Witten ($8.4 million), receiver Miles Austin ($8.2 million), defensive tackle Jay Ratliff ($8.2 million) and linebacker Sean Lee ($7.5 million), and you have $82.3 million in cap commitments for seven players. But the Cowboys' biggest issue, as the folks at overthecap.com have pointed out, is how much dead money -- cap space consumed by players no longer on the roster -- they would incur if they release any of those high-priced veterans. That's something to keep an eye on next spring and beyond.
  • Much has been made about the work the Oakland Raiders have done to relieve their cap crunch. The result of their efforts: They have less than $62 million in commitments for 2014. But that number shouldn't cloud two other teams who are set up with substantial flexibility: The Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts. The Bears have a dozen starters or prominent players whose contracts expire after this season, including quarterback Jay Cutler. The Colts, meanwhile, benefit from having a starting quarterback in Andrew Luck who is locked into his rookie deal at least through 2014. (The Colts' number does not include the acquisition of running back Trent Richardson.)

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