With the Salary Cap Cleaned Up, The Steelers Have Options

For some reason the Steelers salary cap situation has always been one of my favorite things to look into. During the mid-2000’s the team was constantly restructuring contracts to keep their salary cap in line. Now, they have seen many of those large veteran contracts come off of the books and they are in a very good position with the cap. In fact, the Steelers currently sit over $16 million under the cap. That gives them plenty of options as they enter the final months of the off-season.

The Steelers, typically speaking, do not have negotiations during the season. They try to get all of their contracts finalized before the start of the regular season. That gives the team, and any players in the position of signing an extension, only about two more months to get things done. With a $16 million free on the books for the upcoming season the Steelers will definitely sign a couple of players to extensions before the end of the pre-season.

Lock-Up Key Players

There are three players I expect to have new contracts before the start of the 2017 season. The first is Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt was drafted to give the Steelers defensive line a boost and he has done just that. Actually, Tuitt has been so good that it will be hard to sign him to a cap friendly deal. Even so, keeping Tuitt and Cameron Heyward together makes a lot of sense for the Steelers. They give the team a very solid defensive front and should make life a lot easier on the Steelers young outside linebackers.

Next, I expect the team to focus on corner Ross Cockrell. Cockrell has been a solid corner for the Steelers since coming over from Buffalo. One of the biggest factors in keeping Cockrell around is, despite having three years of NFL experience, he is only 25. It is hard to find It is hard to find good young corners, but the Steelers seem to have one in Cockrell. Locking him in on a team friendly deal would be a smart move this off-season.

Finally, I think that the Steelers will try and come to terms with Le’Veon Bell on a long-term contract. There has been a lot of talk about what the team should do with Bell. Running backs aren’t valued as much as they used to be. There is also the fact that Bell has dealt with suspensions. One more issue and Bell would face a year-long suspension. Then, there is the fact that Bell may be the most dynamic offensive player in the NFL. Keeping a player of his ability around is something the Steelers would like to do. The only question is how much money is Bell looking for.

Front-Loaded Contract Extension

Depending on who the Steelers decide to sign to extensions will determine what they can do with the cap. If they only choose to sign one or two players to extensions they could look to front-load a deal. For example, if they wanted to sign Bell to a four-year deal worth say $48 million, which would be $12 million annually, they could give him $20 million in year one. He already is counting $12 million against the cap so that would still leave the team with $8 million in cap space. It would also mean that Bell’s final three years would only count an average of $9.3 million against the cap saving the team some money in those next three years for other spots.

Front-loading a contract is something that teams will do when they have excess cap space, similar to the position the Steelers are in now. Front-loading and back-loading contracts, however, both come with concerns. Back-loading can cause a team to be paying too much for a player later in their career. While with front-loading, there is always the concern that a player may become “lazy” following the big payday.

Many players have seen their production fall off after receiving their first big contract. That could be age, other teams focusing on stopping them, but most believe that it has to do with work ethics dipping. Players work hard to get a big contact, but once they are being paid big money what is the motivation? If they struggle to answer that question the contract could turn into a problem.

Salary Cap Carryover

NFL teams are also allowed to carryover a salary cap surplus. That means if the Steelers are unable to agree to terms on any extensions they would be given $16 million extra on top of next year’s salary cap number. That also gives them plenty of options. They could use that surplus to give negotiations one more try. Or, they could use that money to go after replacements for impending free agents that they don’t think they will be able to retain.

Estimated Value of The Steelers Impending Free Agents

Le’Veon Bell:

Le’Veon Bell is currently on the franchise tag, which will pay him $12 million for the 2017 season. That will also make him the highest paid running back by over $4 million. The Steelers will be using the biggest running back contracts on the market to set Bell’s value. LeSean McCoy is the second highest paid running back at $8 million a year. That is where the Steelers will want this contract to be.

Bell is the most valuable running back in the NFL. That will make him the highest paid as well. I see something in the five-year $55-60 million range, which makes me happy he will be around, but worries me as running back contracts rarely end well.

Stephon Tuitt:

Estimating value for a 3-4 defensive end is difficult. They often get listed with all defensive ends, but a 3-4 end is much different than a 4-3 end. For example, JJ Watt and Tuitt have different roles on their teams. Even so, Tuitt will be looking for a big pay day. Cameron Heyward signed a five-year $59 million contract in 2015. That will probably be around what Tuitt will be asking for, but the Steelers will need to try and get him on a deal in the average annual range of $7-8 million rather than $10 million.

Something around four-years $32-36 million is what I would expect.

Ross Cockrell:

Yes, Cockrell has been a starter for the Steelers, but he won’t be getting starting corner money. Instead I expect the Steelers to look in the range of what they are paying William Gay. A contract that averages $2.5-3 million. The Steelers can hope to lock up Cockrell now and hope he continues to improve. If they can lock him up now they may end up getting good value in the final years of the contract.

Three-years at $8-9 million would be a great deal for both sides.

Image result for alejandro villanuevaAlejandro Villanueva –

Villanueva has played well for the Steelers, but I’m still not sure if I would give him an extension this summer. The Steelers still hold his rights for another year and can wait to sign him until next summer. The left-tackle position is tough. Food for thought: Kelvin Beachum is getting paid $8 million per year. So, if you want Villanueva on an extension that will be the starting point.

If they choose to do it I would expect the max to be $8 million a year. Maybe three-years at $24 million. I’m not sure I would go any higher or longer than that until Villanueva has played more.

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  1. […] The Steelers do not negotiate during the season. That gives Bell and the Steelers about two months to get a deal done. Another reason to expect a deal to get done is the Steelers cap situation. They have $12 million to work with as Bell’s current contract on the franchise tag. They also have another $16 million of cap space to add to the scenario. […]

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