When you look at the defensive players in the NFL that turned 34 years or older last year you see a list of 26 of them. 3 of those 26 were Pittsburgh Steelers and they of course were Casey Hampton, James Harrison and Brett Keisel.
Hampton is of course an unrestricted free agent this offseason and the only chance that he has to return to Pittsburgh would be if he agreed to a one-year qualifying contract for the minimum that comes with a reduced salary cap hit. Is it likely to happen? Probably not, but you never know.
The situation with Harrison is one that I have discussed often dating back to last May and it surfaced again as the hot topic on Tuesday after his agent Bill Parise told John Harris of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that his client is willing to restructure his contract, but not take a pay cut in order to stay. We shall see how this eventually plays out over the course of the next two weeks and a half weeks.
That leaves us with Keisel, who is entering the final year of his contract. He will turn 35 in September and is scheduled to earn a base salary of $2.825 million. Working in his favor is the fact that he is coming off of a season that saw him start all 16 games and he registered 4.5 sacks while doing so. It was the first time since 2007, however, that he did not miss a game. He did injure his knee in the season finale against the Cleveland Browns, but that injury did not require surgery.
Working against Keisel is the fact that the Steelers have Cameron Heyward, their 2011 first round draft pick, who is needing to hit the field as a starter. He played just under 270 snaps on defense in his second season and you can bet that number is expected to at least double in 2013, if not triple.
Should Keisel wind up being relegated to a back up role in 2013 you have to wonder how the Steelers feel about paying him starter type money. They might not have a choice because currently sitting behind Heyward and Hood sits Al Woods on the depth chart. He saw the field for all of 30 snaps in 2012. While Steve McLendon can play end in a pinch, he will most likely be the starting nose tackle in 2013 and will be backed up by either Alameda Ta\'amu or Hebron Fangupo.
Will the Steelers draft another defensive end in April? Chances are good that they will, but that player, like the other defensive ends that came before him, will need at least a year of grooming before he is ready to contribute.
The Steelers could go to Keisel and ask him to take a cut in salary, but there is not much there to ask for. Maybe a cool million, but that\'s about it.
Another solution to save cap money on Keisel, without asking him to take a pay cut, would be to add another year onto his contract and turn $1.885 million of his $2.825 million salary into a signing bonus. This would create a 2013 cap savings on Keisel of $942,500 and leave that same amount as potential dead money in 2014. The Steelers did something similar to that with Aaron Smith back in 2011 in order to clear $875,000 in cap space for that season.
The last solution would be to make Keisel a cap casualty. That would clear $2.825 million in cap space, but leave the Steelers depth at defensive end extremely thin.
Hopefully the Steelers can squeeze one more year out of Keisel, even if it winds up being as a backup. We will know within a few more weeks if the Steelers are thinking the same thing.