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Are The Steelers Headed For Salary Cap Hell In 2012?

The 2011 season is almost here and the Steelers did a great job of turning the salary cap situation around since the lockout ended to get under the cap and lock up a few key players like Ike Taylor, Willie Colon, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons in the process. The problem with retaining such a veteran team for the past few years looks to possibly catch up with them in 2012 from a salary cap standpoint.

I have just started working on the 2012 status of the Steelers salary cap wise and it looks pretty grim right now. After projecting the upcoming final cuts and accounting for the little dead money associated with those cuts, the Steelers look to already have right around $135 million or so already on the 2012 books. The 2012 salary cap number is being projected by many to be around the same as it is this year. For this post I will shoot with a number of $125 million. It should be noted that the 2012 salary cap will be set based on a combined share of a “all revenue model”, so that number is just what I am hearing right now.

As you can see, the Steelers will go into the offseason about $10 million over the cap with roughly 35 players under contract. That speculated $135 million I mentioned above does not include Troy Polamalu either, who will now likely wear the franchise tag heading into training camp next year. That tag will be in the $9 to $10.5 million range by my calculations so that would put the Steelers nearly $20 million over with almost 20 more roster spots to fill.

Two other players will figure into the 2012 picture as well as Mike Wallace will be a restricted free agent and running back Rashard Mendenhall will head into his final year under contract. Placing a high one-year tender on Wallace will not be a problem, but doing a long term deal might. To make matters worse, both Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown will be heading into the final year of their rookie contracts in 2012 in addition. As it looks right now, Mendenhall might not see a second contract with the Steelers as he is a player that could be in the running for the franchise tag in 2013. He figures to have a lot of mileage on him after two more seasons and his health and performance will play a huge role in that decision. Running backs are pretty fungible in today\’s NFL, so that will not be surprising if he does not see another contract with the Steelers.

The initial solution to back out of this pending hell is to release several high priced veterans next year. Players like James Harrison, James Farrior, Brett Keisel, Bryant McFadden, Chris Kemoeatu and even Larry Foote could very well be playing their final year in Pittsburgh in 2011. The savings created by releasing those players will amazingly save $20 million roughly, but they all will carry dead money charges into 2013 should they be post June 1st cuts. After the 2013 though is when most of the television contracts with the NFL are up and of course the revenue will result in a higher salary cap figure at that point.

Back to Polamalu now. Surely he is already not happy with the prospects of playing under the tag in 2012 and he might be able to force the Steelers hand by holding out. You really could not blame him though if he does as he is the face of the Steelers organization and the entire NFL for that matter. The Steelers would be smart to not let it get that far and go ahead and pay him once the veteran cuts are made. This of course would lower his 2012 cap number and push off the bigger balloon years into 2014 or beyond depending on the length of the contract of course.

With Aaron Smith likely playing his last year in 2011 and the possible cuts I mentioned above likely to happen, you can see how the Steelers defense will get real young, real quick in 2012 outside of Taylor, Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Casey Hampton. I should note that Hampton will be entering the final year of his contract in 2012 as well, and he could be part of the major defensive overhaul in addition with a cap savings of nearly $5 million. That would mean the entire 2011 starting defensive line could be gone and half of the linebacker core as well. You can now see why the Steelers drafted Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward, Jason Worilds, Stevenson Sylvester and Chris Carter over the last several years as all look to be major contributors not only in 2011 to some degree, but take over the bulk of the defense completely in 2012. Kevin Colbert and company can\’t afford to miss on these players in my opinion, because the Steelers will not have the money once again to go shopping in the free agency market and land a “Farrior lik”e veteran linebacker or a 3-4 defensive end.

There is always the prospects that a few of the veterans released could be re-signed at a much cheaper price, but that depends on several variables that I am not yet ready to speculate on just yet. A few of them likely will get better offers to end their careers elsewhere, so they would really have to play for cheap if they want back for another year.

Looking at the picture one year out it looks like salary cap hell, but it won\’t be as long as the Steelers have drafted wisely. The real hell will be watching some of the long time Steeler defensive players get their walking papers next offseason and I hope Polamalu is not forced to go through his own private hell as well. He deserves better.

This team is built to win it all in 2011 and that is all that really matters right now. Hell can wait.

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