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Cap constraints limit Steelers' pursuit of free agents

| Monday, March 18, 2013, 11:36 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws against the Browns on Dec. 30, 2012, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws against the Browns on Dec. 30, 2012, at Heinz Field.

PHOENIX — Offensive line, defensive line, bottom line.

Ask which factors more into the Steelers' success — or, this past season, a lack thereof — and general manager Kevin Colbert might waver a moment.

He's heard the chatter how the an 8-8 season in 2012 foreshadows a decline — perhaps matching that of the 1970s-era Steelers after they got old yet were kept mostly intact — that will be difficult to avoid because of money borrowed against the salary cap in future seasons. One example is the $4.3 million worth of dead money in Willie Colon's contract that will count against the cap in 2014.

Given that the Steelers went 12-4 in three of the previous four seasons, Colbert probably doesn't believe he must defend their accounting practices to anyone, especially given that cap expert Omar Khan's work is so recognized around the NFL that he has been interviewed multiple times for general managers' jobs.

For example: To provide minimal cap room, the Steelers cleared $29 million by reworking the contracts of Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, and by releasing James Harrison and Colon.

During a stopover at the annual NFL meetings that lasted barely 24 hours for him, Colbert — who is back on the road evaluating college players — said the team monitors every dollar owed not just this season and in 2014, but in 2015 and beyond.

“You're always concerned,” Colbert said. “One of the jobs Omar has, we have to keep a balance sheet … we try to go four years out. You want to make sure guys on long-term contracts or have monies pushed forward, those players will be able to see that money out and you can handle the money you pushed forward. You've got to be careful, because the money doesn't disappear and, at some point, it's going to count.”

Roethlisberger, for example, is renegotiating his contract almost annually, and it is causing money to stack up against future caps. His contract counts $13.595 million against the cap this season, but that rises to $17.895 million in 2014 and also counts $17.395 million against the '15 cap. And the Steelers already have more than $34 million counting against their 2016 cap because of the restructured deals of Woodley, Timmons and Brown.

Constantly pushing money forward can limit their ability to be players for proven free-agent talent.

If the Steelers were interested in adding Elvis Dumervil and Jake Long, as was rumored at the meetings, those deals would have counted tens of millions of dollars against future caps.

As a result, Mike Tomlin knows he can't go window shopping at the Arizona meetings the way some coaches can.

“We desire to assemble the very best team we can assemble, but obviously we deal in a world of realism — we have (constraints) from a salary-cap standpoint that could limit some of those thoughts,” Tomlin said. “I'm not a big dreamer in that regard and (don't) spend a lot of time looking at things that aren't practical. I approach it from the mindset of what's available to us (in free agency) and how that (meshes) with the draft talent.”

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

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