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For Steelers, salary cap concerns become imminent

| Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 11:46 p.m.

The Steelers are one of only five NFL teams that are more than $10 million above the projected 2013 salary cap of $121 million less than a month before the March 12 compliance deadline.

And it could be worse.

According to salaries compiled by sports contract website Spotrac, the Steelers have $134.8 million committed to players — or about $14 million above the cap.

Still, the Steelers are in better position cap-wise than they were a year ago when they were about $25 million above the cap. They got under by restructuring a number of contracts (Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Ike Taylor, Willie Colon) and by cutting ties with veterans James Farrior, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Bryant McFadden, Arnaz Battle and Chris Kemoeatu.

The roster could experience a comparable shake-up this year.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace, running back Rashard Mendenhall and offensive linemen Max Starks and Ramon Foster could sign elsewhere. Veterans Casey Hampton, Larry Foote, Willie Colon, Ryan Mundy and Byron Leftwich are among those who could be let go.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis is an unrestricted free agent the Steelers are likely to make a primary target.

General manager Kevin Colbert has hinted that significant moves could be made.

“You make decisions to sustain or make decisions to change, and this year we have to make decisions to change,” Colbert said.

The other teams currently well above the cap are the New York Jets ($150.3 million), New Orleans Saints ($147 million), Dallas Cowboys ($143.7 million) and Carolina Panthers ($132.7 million).

The Arizona Cardinals ($127.7 million), San Francisco 49ers ($125.9 million), Philadelphia Eagles ($123.9 million) and Seattle Seahawks ($122.5 million) also are above the cap.

The Steelers have about a half-million dollars in dead money for players no longer on the team whose contracts still count against the cap, $87.8 million in base salaries, $27.6 million in bonus money and $19.9 million in other bonuses.

The Steelers' AFC North rivals are well below the cap, including the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens ($107 million). The Cincinnati Bengals are a league-best $46 million below the cap at $75.6 million, despite making the playoffs the past two seasons. The Cleveland Browns — headed by new, deep-pockets owner Jimmy Haslam — are significantly below the cap at $83.1 million, giving them considerable flexibility to make moves during the free-agent signing period.

The Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins also have enough cap room to make major moves.

In their current position, the Steelers can't chase any of the immediate-impact free agents.

“We've signed significant players (as free agents), but they have been few and far between,” Colbert said. “We have to be open to that, but at what cost?”

As teams head to the scouting combine in Indianapolis next week to evaluate players in the 2013 draft class, the Steelers are expected to begin making moves to get under the cap.

“It will include terminations. It will include (contract) extensions and restructurings,” Colbert said recently. “The combination of the three will get us in compliance. ... But if you want to terminate someone, you'd better have a replacement. If you extend someone, you have to have confidence that player will see it out. If you restructure, you'd better be confident going forward you don't hurt yourself cap-wise.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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