Steelers face difficult decision in order to get under salary cap
By Jerry DiPaola
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, February 11, 2005

With 10 players costing between $2.95 million and $5.484 million against the salary cap, the Steelers will be forced to terminate and adjust some contracts to be in compliance with the league-mandated spending limit by the March 2 deadline.

"We will have to make some adjustments, as we do every year," director of football operations Kevin Colbert said.

Those adjustments could include releasing some high-priced veterans, such as cornerback Chad Scott, who missed nine Steelers victories last season with a knee injury. He is scheduled to count $4.985 million against the cap this year, and the team may find that prohibitive.

It also means an almost-certain pay cut for running back Jerome Bettis, if he doesn't retire. Bettis, who will be 33 this season, is entering the fifth year of a six-year contract and would cost $5.484 million in cap dollars.

The NFL and its union have not agreed upon a cap number for the 2005 season, but most league and team officials expect it to increase by about $5 million from last year's limit of $80.582 million.

That could help the Steelers in their efforts to re-sign some of their 12 unrestricted and seven restricted free agents. Colbert said the team has not begun negotiations with any of their players, but there will be movement in that area by the end of February.

"We lost some time because of the Pro Bowl," said Colbert, noting that the Steelers coaches are in Hawaii this week directing the AFC squad. "We had a couple of meetings to try and map out our plans. Coaches were given some players (free agents) to evaluate prior to their leaving."

Before the team can begin thinking about signing players, officials must clear cap space. That would include dealing with the contracts of several veterans who earn more than $3 million per year.

In years past, the Steelers have reduced cap numbers by turning the majority of some players' base salaries into signing bonuses and pro-rating them over the length of the contract. Colbert called such a practice "a necessary evil," although players don't lose money in the transactions.

"There are dangers that are inherent with it," he said. "You are taking money and pushing it into the future. If those players get cut, then that money would accelerate back into the current year. You have to create money for the year at hand, but you always have to make sure you are not forgetting about the future."

Those players with hefty contracts that could be asked to accept a restructuring are guard Alan Faneca ($5.3665 million against the cap), center Jeff Hartings ($5.478 million), outside linebacker Joey Porter ($4.887 million), defensive end Aaron Smith ($5.010 million) and offensive tackle Marvel Smith ($5.293 million). All five were named to the Pro Bowl.

Many of them have accepted restructuring in the past, and could be willing to do it again to help create cap space.

Bettis' salary and situation are different from those of the other players because he has only two years left on his contract and probably won't play beyond 2005.

"That's something that coach (Bill) Cowher will talk to him about extensively," Colbert said.

The team is hoping to know Bettis' future before the start of free agency and the draft. It would seek a replacement from one or both of those areas.

"I would imagine that's one situation that we would have to look at," Colbert said.

Notes: The Steelers tried to claim veteran tight end Darnell Sanders, who was put on waivers by the Atlanta Falcons, but he was awarded to the Chicago Bears, who had an inferior won-lost record last season. ... The St. Louis Rams signed former Pitt and IUP offensive lineman Khiawatha Downey. ... Former Steelers fullback J.T. Wall signed with the Indianapolis Colts.