Steelers facing tough personnel decisions
When the Steelers met Monday for the final time this season following a season-ending, 29-23 overtime loss to Denver in an AFC wild-card game, it may have marked the end of one of the greatest eras in franchise history.
It was the last time the Steelers will meet as a group until May. It's almost certain that several familiar faces who had a hand in the team's five division titles, three AFC championships and two Super Bowl titles will be gone.
The organization feels the current group of players can win another championship, but realizes it probably can't afford some key veterans who helped them win 105 games during a 10-year span.
"There's always going to be changes," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Monday. "There are changes every year. I am not going to sit here and pretend like there's not going to be changes. To what extent, at this point, I am not ready to address."
Projections have the Steelers between $20-$25 million above the salary cap for 2012, with 42 players currently under contract. Only the top 51 players on an 80-man expanded offseason roster count toward the projected $125 million salary cap, which is scheduled to be made official next month.
The Steelers' current $140 million worth of salaries don't include any of their 12 unrestricted free agents, six restricted free agents, two exclusive-rights free agents or any of their April draft choices.
The Steelers will seek a pay reduction from some high-profile names in order to comply with the salary cap, or more likely will release a number of them.
"It's bad," said salary cap guru Dave Bryan of SteelersDepot. "They are going to have to cut established guys, and the situation they are in now, even a guy a like James Harrison has to be brought into the equation, although unlikely. This team has no choice but to make some very tough decisions."
Harrison is due $5.56 million this year. He would count as a $4 million cap hit if released, which makes it unlikely he would be one of the casualties.
However, releasing veterans such as Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Larry Foote, Jonathan Scott, Will Allen, Bryant McFadden and Arnaz Battle before the start of the new NFL year March 1 would save the organization approximately $11-$13 million.
"We will see where this all takes us," Tomlin said. "Right now, I just have a great deal of respect and appreciation for the men in that room and what they were willing to do for us this year."
The organization also has to look into signing wide receiver Mike Wallace to a long-term deal. Even though Wallace is a restricted free agent, the team likely will work on an extension heading into training camp.
Other veterans whose contracts don't expire until after the 2013 season or later — Brett Keisel, James Farrior and Hines Ward among them — could be cut June 1 to reduce the salary-cap hit.
"Formally and informally, it starts immediately," Tomlin said. "I think that's how we are wired. I love what I do. The wheels continue to turn, and it's time to start building for 2012. Informally, it's already started. That's what this thing is all about."