The Salary Cap And The Decline Of The Meritorious Contract

By Matthew Marczi

Yesterday, I utilized a quick study from the salary cap specialist website Over the Cap to discuss the nature of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ financial roster-building philosophy and how it was altered, understandably, following recent Super Bowl success over the past decade, which includes two championships in three appearances, with four AFC Championship appearances in total.

In the early stages of the free agency era, the Steelers were more scrupulous with their cap spending, often passing rather than allowing high-valued players to acquire their market value in Pittsburgh. There are many, many examples that come to mind, though the only one that the organization has publicly regretted was Rod Woodson.

Since then, the front office has become much more charitable with its veteran players who have helped lead this team back to the top of the profession, reaching a zenith they had not seen in a quarter of a century.

Players like Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, have all played into their 30s, even mid-late 30s at times, largely out of a desire of keeping that championship roster together—as well as the fear of letting it go.

In the aforementioned Over the Cap quick study, which revealed that the Steelers have the highest top-five cap commitment figure in the entire league, they revealed that of the top 10 teams in that category, only one had gone to the playoffs this past season, that being the New Orleans Saints. Additionally, the only team from that list that made the playoffs last season was the Baltimore Ravens, though that was before Joe Flacco’s enormous new contract.

On the other end of the spectrum, they find that three of the bottom five teams in this category—the Indianapolis Colts, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Cincinnati Bengals—have all gone to the playoffs for the past two seasons—three in the cases of the latter two. This is somewhat misleading, given the significant amount of youth on these three rosters, made up of players yet to hit their second contracts.

More problematically, the study offers up the following generalization about the top ten teams on the list:

What is interesting to note is that none of the seven top heavy spenders was a playoff team in 2013 and none had a winning record. The Saints are the only team in the top 10 to have made the playoffs last season or had a winning record. These are teams that need changes not large investments in the same group of players and they all need to keep that in mind when giving up more future flexibility to keep a mediocre team together.

While this could certainly apply to many, if not most of the teams that top the list, I question how accurate it truly is in Pittsburgh’s case, at least in 2014. Perhaps I skew overly optimistic, but I don’t believe that arbitrary change in favor of cap savings is the right move at this point in time.

To begin with, I believe that the era of the meritorious contract is nearly over. Players like Smith and Hampton, James Farrior and Hines Ward are already gone, while still more (Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark) are on their way out the door.

Additionally, I believe that the vast majority of ‘changes’ have already occurred. Players like Cameron Heyward, Le’Veon Bell, Cortez Allen, Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, and, assuming he’s re-signed, Jason Worilds have emerged over the past couple seasons as the new core of this team, the new leaders around which the team will be shaped as the old guard fades away.

Of course, the two big elephants in the room are LaMarr Woodley and Taylor. Many would also argue Polamalu; some might even throw out Heath Miller’s name. Speaking in more realistic terms, however, Woodley and Taylor are the two primary candidates to address the ‘changes’ alluded to.

Reading between the lines, the 29-year-old outside linebacker doesn’t seem to be the future of the team, given the stated desire to re-sign Worilds and the recent first-round investment in Jarvis Jones. Even though he has continued to play at a high level when healthy, it’s hard to argue that the team has gotten its money’s worth in recent years.

Taylor, meanwhile, gave up more yards in coverage last season than any cornerback in the league, allowing more than 60 percent of passes in his coverage to be caught, with six going for touchdowns. He, too, is not the same player he once was, but he is somewhat more problematic to replace, since both Allen and William Gay are seemingly number two corners.

Regardless of what decisions are made on these players this offseason, I don’t believe it’s accurate to say that they must move on from them in order to rebuild a successful roster, and I believe the evidence lies in the tape from the second half of the season.

Many of the trials the Steelers faced this season are well-known, from losing Maurkice Pouncey in the season opener to the delayed debut of Bell, the less than 100 percent Miller at tight end, the loss of Larry Foote and the adjustment away from James Harrison and Keenan Lewis.

The Steelers may not have had a winning season, but they had a very successful second half, in which they went 6-2. While they will likely need a new starting receiver and free safety, I don’t see the momentum of that finish being derailed significantly by roster shakeups.

Therefore, I don’t think further arbitrary changes will be overly beneficial. The old guard living off the meritorious contracts are nearly extinct; the majority that remain are still performing at a high level, so parting with them in the name of change is not the solution.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • steeltown

    Agreed. People seem to forget that Keisel, Clark and Foote are seemingly done.. and very soon Ike Taylor is gone too, he situation is a little different being that we lack CB depth. It really wont be long before this “transition” is complete and most of the high backend contracts are off the books. I still feel guys like Miller and Polamalu are and will be contributors but all others from the 2000’s SuperBowl era are done

  • grw1960

    True but. Woodley was in his prime when he signed his big contract. Unfortunately he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy.

  • Jason Chadwell

    I believe some fans that rag on the Woodley contract forget that he was young up and coming player it’s not like the organization could have let him go at that time it’s very similar to the worlids situation now.

  • steeltown

    To me it was never about the contract total or the per year avg.. its the restructures and the injuries which make his contract unbearable


    There you go…had they not restructured him…the initial contract he had was not nearly as toxic in the event his play tampered off in the latter years of it, which is what’s happening.

  • John

    For Woodley, isn’t a trade a possibility if they do not want to stick with him long-term? Maybe one where we carry part of the salary that opens up additional cap space for us and allows us to re-sign Worilds? I do not know how this works per se under the cap but the rationale makes sense. Until he was hurt, Woodley did play well last year. Further, Worilds is a one year wonder so things are not entirely clear cut there either.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    Troy, Ike and woodley should be offered reduced contracts or cut. You need to spread the money around or just wait for years when everyone is healthy.

  • cencalsteeler

    I wonder if they cut Woodley if they would consider bringing back Harrison. Harrison was hardly used last year. We could learn some insight on the Bengals, he could rotate in with Jones and Worilds, but more importantly he could mentor J.J. and retire a Steeler.

  • Dennis Nevinsky

    No one has mentioned Roethlisberger. He is a high cap QB, in his 30s. He will continue playing well, but with mediocre talent on defense, we will waste his best years. Why not a trade to Houston and pick up the top QB in the draft and a few other high round picks to upgrade the team.

  • steeltown


  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    I think the Steelers badly miscalculated the cap trajectory when they made these contracts.

  • steellife007

    That doesn’t sound like it was very well thoughtout!
    Sounds like you don’t know any of the QBs in this yrs draft….combined with you might not having seen Roethlisberger play recently!! IDK lol

  • Dan

    I could be wrong, but I never got the vibe that Harrison had a mentoring type personality.

  • Dennis Nevinsky

    I have seen Roethlisberger play. He is a very good QB, but the team is not. This is the best time to get value for him. I like Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. Now if we can start over with a new young franchise QB and get a second round pick this year and Houston’s 1st round pick next year, we would have a much more manageable cap and enough high draft picks to build a quality team.

  • Jollyrob68

    Woodley deserved the contract he signed however, he no longer deserves to be paid that way based on him being unable to stay healthy.

  • Jollyrob68

    I hope not, Time to move on! Ask Woodley to take a pay cut due to him not staying healthy. If he say’s no Post June 1 cut.

  • Jollyrob68

    I’d prefer to trade him St Louis and get their two 1st and Sam Bradford.

  • Jollyrob68

    Nice thinking. I’d be all in for St Louis’s two 1st. I’d also trade Pouncey to Miami for Jonathan Martin & a 4th.

  • dgh57

    Just like they want Troy to retire as a Steeler they want Ben to retire a Steeler. The Rooney’s have already stated something to that effect.

  • Bill Molinaro

    Jefferson Street is spot on! The downside of those contracts was ignored and obscured by the visions of more Super Bowls dancing in their heads. Who knows? Maybe if the offensive line had stayed reasonably healthy that might of happened. I believe Steeler fans think they have more injuries than other teams but look at Denver. They lost a pro-bowl left tackle and I believe two centers but still are Super Bowl bound. You need Harry Potter like wizardry to know who to keep and who to let go these days. But I believe the Steelers let Keenan Lewis walk because of the salary cap woes. That should not have happened and the team would be better off going into 2014 if Lewis was still here. The point is that they must be more cognizant of the long term effect of the large contracts in order to handle the cap and high cap players more efficiently. Enter the wizard!

  • dkoy85

    If these vets truly want to play and want to go out on top with a chance at a Superbowl run then they have to take a pay cut! Lucky for us the remaining guys are true team players who will hopefully, unselfishly, take some major pay cuts.

  • dkoy85

    After next year the cap will be much more manageable. Why trade Ben when the offense is starting to fire on all cylinders? That would be starting all over with a draft with what seems to be 0 franchise QB’s. Maybe if there was an Andrew Luck but not with this draft class. . I agree with Steellife007- this was not very well thought out, not one bit. Do you really want an Andy Dalton? Surrounded by immense talent but still can’t get past the first round of playoffs. Sorry to shoot down your opinion but it’s just so unreasonable.

    Man, I almost feel like leaving work early to go home and spend a few hours replying to this comment…

  • NW86

    Very true, and understandable. I think there are a lot of people that didn’t think we would have a cap in 2014 that is still LOWER than 2009’s cap.

  • CrazyTerry

    That probowl berth really gave Troy a lot of leverage. Still, he is overpaid. He has been made to look really bad by good QBs in pass coverage. I still can’t get over how awful he looked in the GB SB and the recent NE game. He still is a good safety overall with moments of genius. But consistency is not there. If Harrison was forced to take a paycut or leave, I do not know why Troy is more untouchable. It’s not about his replacement downgrade. There was a big downgrade from Harrison to Jarvis this year. Still, we went that route. So why not show the same confidence in drafting another safety?
    If Ike makes a dollar above 2M, Colbert should be fired on the spot.
    Woodley has to be cut. Just move on unless he agrees to a stats and games based incentive laden contract.

  • CrazyTerry

    Ben’s cap number is very reasonable for a top 10 QB. (he may not be a top 3 QB, but he is definitely close to returning to bein a top 5 QB again).

  • CrazyTerry

    No one is bashing Colbert for the initial contract. But restructuring his contract was stupid.


    Why don’t we just extend him, cut the large contracts (Troy, Ike, Woodley, Heath), and bring in some free agents.

    Rebuild quickly as possible instead of prolonging this aging 8-8 team.

  • Jeff

    Why give up a top tier QB in the NFL that’s in his prime, for the best rookie QB in this year’s class that may or may not pan out in the NFL? Big Bens don’t grow on trees… There’s actual needs that should be addressed in the upcoming draft, not some blockbuster deal that results in us losing our best player…

  • Jeff

    I just don’t see a need to get rid of our best player just to start over… Yeah, we’d have solid draft picks, but what if Bridgewater doesn’t work out? … Then we’re just the Browns – no QB and a ton of talent. The Steelers were 1 play away from the playoffs this year, it’s not like we went 0-16 and need to start from scratch

  • HopalongCassidy

    Martin ? You’re joking…right ?

  • Richard Edlin

    I think in his case the word is “headcase”.

  • Nolrog

    I thought Keisel played well this year. I don’t think he’s quite done yet.

  • Nolrog

    It’s not even so much the restructures. He’s injured too often lately. He needs to stay on the field.

  • Nolrog

    It wasn’t stupid. It was a strategic decision. They waned to keep the super bowl team together, and the only way to do that was to push money into the future to create current cap space. Had they chosen not to do that, it’s very possible we wouldn’t have been to the 3rd and maybe not even won the 2nd SB.

  • Nolrog

    Houston is not going to give up the #1 overall pick plus other high round picks for Ben.

  • Nolrog

    I disagree. They knew exactly what they were getting into. At the time they started, the new TV deal wasn’t in place for them to make the projection and I doubt Omar would have miscalculated so badly, considering they knew what the TV deal was, and many people without access to those details projected it to go up very slowly.

  • Nolrog

    The fact that there is no one to replace him gives Troy all the leverage he needs.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Agreed the Woodley restructures were done to create more cap space. It’s hard to predict the injury history of the player but at the time of the initial contract I thought it was fair market for what he had accomplished at that point. Personally I think Wood will get another year depending on how the draft pans out. The Steelers may even decide to give him another year for depth purposes but I can’t see him sticking after this year.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Trade your franchise QB for an unproven commodity. Ask the Browns, Raiders or Redskins how that’s working out for them


    Well…I think it is a factor b/c if not for the money being guaranteed they could parts ways without nearly as much cap penalty…i.e. like James Harrison and currently Taylor and Troy P contracts. I hope he can stay healthy, he should go talk to Troy and find out what he did last offseason.

  • steellife007

    Douglas Andrews, why would you reply that comment to me when I just told Dennis he basically must not know what he’s talking about when he suggested we trade Ben???

  • steeltown

    I could see him back as well, albeit on a vet minimum deal or somewhere around $1MIL

  • charles

    In defense of Ike, Troy and even Clark: No presure on the qb makes the secondary’s job impossible. Mock Draft : 7 defensive linemen, pressure as a result and all three mentioned above will be pro bowl talent and therefore deserve their minimum contracts.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Just wanted to give him a nugget or two to think about but I get your point