This offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers won’t spend or save money as much as they will move it.
Not many teams restructure player contracts quite like the Steelers, who will sign you, then convert your salary into a signing bonus a year later – all in the name of creating precious salary-cap space.
The Steelers restructured seven contracts last season, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System and ESPN reports. Four of those reworked deals involved veteran players who just completed the first year of a big contract.
The team did at least two restructures in 2014. Pittsburgh reworked wide receiver Antonio Brown’s contract in back-to-back offseasons -- converting $5.27 million of existing base salary into a salary bonus in 2014 and pulling the same trick in 2015 while moving up $2 million of 2016 money as a gesture to Brown’s immense talent in 2015.
The Steelers’ philosophy seems clear: Sign good players who will be around for a while and move their money down the line. If those players struggle on the field, this plan can backfire. It hasn’t yet.
“The guys that they’ve kicked the can with have remained productive players,” said J.I. Halsell, a former Washington Redskins salary cap analyst who runs NFLContractMetrics.com. “It keeps them afloat.”
Contract restructures are fairly innocuous in nature. The players still get paid the same. They don't mind because they get cash in hand quicker. But the Steelers make these moves more than most teams, and often out of necessity.
For context, the Steelers’ two fiercest rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens, combined to execute one contract restructure last year, for Terrell Suggs. The Green Bay Packers – who, like the Steelers, often eschew free agency in favor of signing their own drafted players – haven’t restructured a contract since 2013.
What does this mean?: For a few years, the Steelers navigated what many considered a salary-cap crunch. The combination of aging players under bloated contracts and young, emerging players getting bloated contracts pushed the franchise close to the salary-cap ceiling. The team is in slightly better shape now, in part because converting salaries to bonus money lessens the immediate hit. Those bonuses prorate to affect future salary caps, though. For example: If a player gets a $10 million signing bonus as part of a five-year extension, that’s a $2 million prorated cap hit over those five years. If the team converts a $3 million salary into a bonus, that’s $3 million more poured into the prorated total. This is a dangerous place to be if a player who gets restructured in Year 1 bottoms out on the field in Year 2.
Why does this plan work?: Because, for the most part, the Steelers have drafted well and give contracts to players who merit big money. They are more concerned with winning with a talented roster than preserving precious cap space. The reason teams like the Raiders and Jaguars have had gobs of cap space in recent years: Their drafted players weren't worth re-signing. Also, the Steelers are forecasting an increasing NFL salary cap in future years. They know the additional space will be there. Why not allocate the money to the wide-open space?
What’s the down side?: The money doesn’t really go away, leaving the Steelers without a true cap cushion and forcing the front office to get creative every year. The Steelers have $2.767 million in cap space right now, according to the Roster Management System, but that will jump closer to $10 million when the new cap ceiling lands somewhere in the $150 million range. The current adjusted cap is $144 million. As it stands, that $10 million isn’t much if the team wants to re-sign role players such as William Gay and Kelvin Beachum while targeting a defensive back in the open market. Heck, good backup quarterbacks cost at least $4 million annually now. Getting a top-money free agent is sort of out of the question unless the Steelers really stretch their money.
Case study: Lawrence Timmons: After two restructures, Timmons has a reported $15.1 million cap hit in 2016, the last of his deal. He turns 30 this offseason. He’s been productive for the Steelers. The team could use the existing money ($8.75 million salary) as a catalyst for a two-to-three-year contract extension. But Timmons has leverage here because his cap number makes him virtually uncuttable. Timmons is still an above-average blitzer, and he’s good against the run, but he’s not considered an elite cover guy, so if speed is the long-term mandate for the rebuilt Steelers defense, offering big money to Timmons could be problematic. Timmons has made clear he wants to retire as a Steeler, so a deal that’s friendly to both sides seems feasible.
How can the Steelers use the restructure practice to create more cap room?: Call on veteran players to help, starting with Ben Roethlisberger. In March, the quarterback signed a five-year extension worth up to $108 million. In 2016, he’s due $17.75 million in base salary, while his signing bonus prorates at $6.2 million over the next four seasons. They could convert some of his base into a salary bonus. The same goes for defensive end Cam Heyward, who has a roster bonus due on the fifth day of the league year, along with his $3 million salary. Both those players aren’t going away. They should stay productive. Veteran players are willing to help the team because their agents know before negotiations start that restructuring with Pittsburgh is a possibility.
When will more restructures happen?: March and August are popular times. Last year, three restructures got done in that month, which is a high-tide time for the league because of free agency. The Steelers could also save money by releasing cornerback Cortez Allen ($4.4 million salary) or trading kicker Shaun Suisham ($2.4 million). But that’s not as fun as moving money around.