By Matthew Marczi
Anybody who follows the Pittsburgh Steelers with any degree of depth is well aware of the fact that they have had salary cap issues for several seasons now, which is generally the territory every team with a franchise quarterback will eventually face.
This is not necessarily a major obstacle for a team disciplined upon the notion of growing a team from within, primarily utilizing the draft to construct a roster and only supplementing the fringes via free agency.
Previously, the Steelers were far less likely to bring a home-grown player into their third, or even second contracts, preferring instead to have someone ready and groomed, waiting to take over. Such was the case with countless players, such as Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, and Yancey Thigpen—although the latter wasn’t a Steelers draft pick.
That mindset kind of changed, understandably, when the Steelers started winning Super Bowls. After all, if a roster is good enough to achieve the zenith of your sport, then it’s probably a good idea to try to keep that roster intact.
As a result, many players that were a staple of that Super Bowl success have seen their playing careers in Pittsburgh extend into their third contracts, while other younger players that in years past may have been deemed too pricy to keep relative to the drop in performance of a replacement have cashed in with the Steelers.
So it’s no surprise that, according to the NFL Salary Cap specialist website Over the Cap, the Steelers have the highest amount of money in the league tied up in their top five most highly compensated players.
That is, of course, relative to their 2014 salary cap hit. According to their data, the top five cap hits the team is currently wrestling with amounts to a total of $67, 131,154, which, as mentioned, is the most in the NFL.
That is significantly more than the average, which comes out to just a bit over $50,000,000 and is just one of seven teams exceeding the $60,000,000 mark, which is nearly half the total salary cap limit.
The Steelers also rank fourth overall when considering the top three and top four salary cap hits. Thus, it’s interesting to consider that their books jump up to first when we continue to expand the numbers, suggesting that, while they may not have the utmost premium contracts, they do have a higher quantity of significantly elevated contracts.
So let’s take a look at those top five cap hits. Naturally, it starts with the franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, whose $18,895,000 cap hit consumes the lion’s share of the previously stated figure. This is a perfect illustration of what having a franchise quarterback does to a successful team’s cap budget.
The only team in the top 10 when considering the three largest cap hits that doesn’t have a franchise quarterback—or more accurately a quarterback paid a franchise-caliber salary—is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When considering the five largest contracts, the New York Jets also jump into the top 10, but overall, the same principle applies.
Beyond the franchise quarterback are two highly experienced veterans in their third contracts, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu. The sixth-largest cap hit is Heath Miller. These are players—with the possible exception of Polamalu, though Rod Woodson’s example is a cautionary tale—that likely would not have been given third contracts in Pittsburgh in years past.
And it’s also largely why the Steelers are now annually facing salary cap concerns. In short, it’s expensive to keep together a championship-caliber roster. But it’s even scarier to let a championship-caliber roster go, even while knowing that many of those players will not be able to play out the tail end of their third contracts with much bang for the buck.