Steelers change pattern, abstain from restructuring contracts this offseason
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert looks at the NFL salary cap the same way he looks at his credit card.
“Sooner or later,” he said, “you are going to have to pay.”
In the NFL, whoever manages the best without being socked with a proverbial late fee is ahead of the game.
Arguably no one has done that better than Colbert and director of football administration Omar Khan.
The Steelers on Tuesday begin Phase 3 of their offseason workouts at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex with the first of 13 on-field practices. The veteran-laden team is picked by many pundits as the best in the AFC, thanks to a roster with few holes, quality depth and money to spend under the salary cap.
The Steelers have gained a reputation for mangling the salary cap, but reality suggests they have done just the opposite.
They re-signed six of their own free agents and brought in five unrestricted free agents, including a top-level tight end in Ladarius Green. He is expected to replace Heath Miller, whose retirement hit the Steelers with an unexpected salary cap hit.
Still, the Steelers spent only $15 million toward the 2016 cap. According to NFLPA records, they are about $3.5 million under the cap despite having 46 percent of their cap this season tied up in five players: Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward.
“You never want to get to the point where you have to gut the team to make it work, and we never have,” Colbert said in March. “We've been able to be competitive almost every year, and that's the goal.”
The Steelers have used the tactic of restructuring contracts to remain under the salary cap while retaining top players. In a typical restructuring, a player converts some of his base salary or roster bonus into a signing bonus, which can be prorated or spread out evenly over the life of a contract (maximum of five years).
The Steelers have restructured 24 contracts in five years, pushing $84 million into the future. Last year, they restructured seven contracts.
This year, however, they have yet to restructure any contracts even though there were opportunities. Roethlisberger's, Pouncey's and Heyward's deals could have been manipulated to realize salary cap savings before those players' roster bonuses took effect in March.
“Restructuring has been around for a long time,” Colbert said. “It's always a tool that we have, but we also have to use it judiciously.”
The Steelers could get away with not restructuring any contract this year. An imminent extension of David DeCastro's deal and a possible extension of Timmons' would free cap space. A post-June 1 release or trade of Shaun Suisham could another $2.4 million of relief.
“There are a handful of teams that do so pretty often, though I'm not sure anyone does it as much as Pittsburgh,” said Jason Fitzgerald of overthecap.com, a website that tracks salary cap news. “Other teams that do it for the purpose of bringing in more high-priced players end up pushing so much money into the future that it eventually compromises their ability to function in the manner they would want.”
According to Mike Ginnitti of Spotrac, billed the largest sports team and player contract resource on the Internet, the Steelers recently have changed the way they've structured contracts, which has led to fewer restructurings.
“The Steelers were structuring contracts carelessly when the salary cap came back into the fold in 2011 and knew it,” Ginnitti said. “In order to combat their accounting, they made it extremely clear that no player will be considered for an extension until the final year of his current contract, and for all intents, they've held to this.
“By doing this, they can structure their contracts initially to account for restructures in the second, third, and fourth years, which is a tactic many teams are taking now.”
Colbert said the Steelers always have a three-year outlook.
“Right now, we have an idea of where we'll be in 2019,” he said. “If you keep all of those working together, you can keep a good handle on how you manage it.”