Super Bowl XLV MVP Hines Ward. (Photo from Sports Illustrated)
When the Pittsburgh Steelers walked off the field in Denver after losing to the Broncos in the AFC Wild Card round, it was well known that the team was heading into an offseason unlike any other in club history. The Steelers stood more than $22 million over the 2012 salary cap while needing to sign WR Mike Wallace, other free agents, and an entire draft class, as well as needing to get younger on defense.
The Steelers started the process with a couple of obvious moves, cutting WR Arnaz Battle and CB Bryant McFadden, and then proceeded to clear up around $20 million in cap space by restructuring the contracts of QB Ben Roethlisberger, CB Ike Taylor, LB Lawrence Timmons, LB LaMarr Woodley, and OT Willie Colon. While these moves cost ownership around $35 million in signing bonuses and pushed some future cap space, there was no on-field impact from the initial salary cap work. Then came this week.
Over the past two days, word has spread that the Steelers are releasing several big-name, big-contract veterans who were key parts of teams that played in 3 Super Bowls and won 2 but who have fallen victim to Father Time and Father Salary Cap. Those who will not be back in 2012 include:
WR Hines Ward – Ward, the holder of every meaningful receiving record in Steelers history, was set to make $4 million in 2012. The Steelers, however, did not even approach him about a pay cut, believing that he is simply finished as a productive NFL player. Ward’s production fell of a cliff over the past two seasons, bottoming out at 46-381-2 in 2011, and even those numbers were largely created by the organization forcing him balls in an effort to get him to 1,000 catches. Ward’s 8.3 ypc figure in 2011 ranked 124th of 137 players who had over 30 receptions in 2011 and was dead last among NFL WR’s. Hines Ward will be remembered as one of the greatest Steelers, one who not only won 2 Super Bowls and holds every team receiving record, but also who personified the organization by playing the game in a physical, tenacious manner. Ward stated that he wants to play in 2012, but it’s very hard to imagine #86 wearing any other NFL uniform.
Farewell to Aaron Smith.
DE Aaron Smith – The most underrated member of a dozen years of elite defenses, Smith has played in only 15 games in the 3 seasons since the Steelers won Super Bowl XLV at the end of the 2008 season. Smith was largely supplanted as a starter by Ziggy Hood even before he suffered a season-ending triceps’ injury during Week 4. During the nine years that Smith started 10 or more games from 2000-2008, the Steelers ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in defense all nine seasons, including seven top-five finishes and four #1 finishes. Smith, who was due to make $2.1 million in 2012, is likely to retire, but has not yet announced his intention to do so.
G Chris Kemoeatu – Far less heralded than Ward or Smith, Kemoeatu was jettisoned because, very simply, his salary was far greater than his production. Drafted by the Steelers in 2005, Kemoeatu became a starter in 2008, replacing Alan Faneca when he signed with Jets. Kemeoatu had two solid years in 2008 and 2009 and was rewarded with a 5-year contract after the 2009 season. From that point forward, due in part to a series of knee injuries, Kemoeatu became a turnstile in pass protection and a holding penalty waiting to happen, ultimately losing his starting job for much of the 2011 season. Kemoeatu was scheduled to count over $5.2 million against the cap in 2012 and 2013, and his release will save roughly $2.4 million against the cap in 2012.
LB James Farrior – As of this moment, there has been no announcement that Farrior will be released. It is, however, probably just a matter of time. Farrior’s agent, Ralph Cindrich, stated today that “it doesn’t look good” for Farrior to remain a Steeler in 2012, as Farrior’s release would save the Steelers $2.85 million against the salary cap. Farrior, who at 37 was one of the oldest starters in the NFL last season, has started at ILB the past nine seasons for the Steelers and was defensive captain for the last eight. It is expected that either Larry Foote or Sylvester Stevenson would assume Farrior’s starting role.
So now what? The Steelers currently have only 2 WR’s under contract for 2012 – Emmanual Sanders and Antonio Brown. Jerricho Cotchery is a UFA, but the Steelers are hoping to bring him back. The 900-pound gorilla at the position is, of course, Mike Wallace, who is a RFA after averaging over 1200 yards and 9 TD’s the past two seasons and has emerged as one of the top deep threats in the NFL. The Steelers have stated that they will not franchise Wallace but will place a first-round tender on him, meaning they will get the #1 pick from any team that signs him. I still think they will lock him up to a long term deal before any team has a crack at him, something that the purging of veterans will help facilitate.
While the purging of contracts is likely over, there are three other Steelers who are signed for 2012 that should still feel a little nervous:
Camera phone, hello.
(1) NT Casey Hampton – Hampton tore his ACL during the playoff loss to Denver and has a cap hit of a staggering $8.05 million for 2012. By cutting Hampton, the Steelers would reduce his cap hit to around $2.2 million, a saving of over $5.8 million. The drawback to what seems like an easy call is that the Steelers are very thin at the position with the retirement of Hampton’s long-time back-up, Chris Hoke. Steve McLendon showed some promise last year and the Steelers could move Ziggy Hood to NT and replace Hood outside with Cam Heyward, but neither presents an ideal scenario.
(2) LB Larry Foote – Foote’s cap figure for for 2012 is over $3 million, but the expected release of James Farrior could thrust Foote into a starting role and save his job. Whether Foote is a Steeler in 2012 could depend on whether the Steelers believe Stevenson Sylvester is ready to start inside. Foote is an average-at-best player with a cap figure in excess of his value, but the Steelers’ depth at ILB may not permit the team to move on, at least not yet.
(3) OT Jonathan Scott – With Willie Colon and Marcus Gilbert slated to start at the tackle position, Scott’s $2.7 million cap figure for 2012 isn’t viable as a backup. Cutting Scott would save the Steelers over $2.2 million. The fact that the Steelers have no other backup tackles that have played significant minutes in the NFL on the roster (given that Max Starks is a UFA) makes cutting Scott somewhat problematic…but then you remember that Scott is terrible and stop worrying about it.
A busy offseason for the Steelers is heating up, and this week’s carnage may only be the start of a reshaping of the organization. It’s going to be a bumpy ride but, at the end of the day, the Steelers have yet to lose anyone that they’ll regret.