A couple other posts this morning have got me thinking about the rookie contract restrictions put in place a couple years ago and how that has/is changing the landscape of building a team in the NFL.
The obvious, and intended, purpose of these changes is that rookies make less and veterans make more. Being that the Steelers have typically relied on building through the draft and not free agency, that would seem to play into their favor and give them more salary cap space to work with every year. Unfortunately I don't think that is how it has worked out.
The Steelers, by being one of the better teams at drafting and developing talent, have essentially now become a team that others want to pick players away from. And those teams can now do that more effectively because they aren't paying their high 1st round draft picks boatloads of money anymore! And the Steelers, by locking up their own players to large contracts and keeping them around for 10+ years, are now at a disadvantage to compete in the new system because they have a lot of money tied up in their own old guys and can't compete with the money that is going to be thrown at their good young guys.
There are teams that tend to draft early in the 1st and teams that tend to draft late in the 1st. The teams drafting late fueled their future success by having lower rookie contract values, developing talent, and paying their own talent. Teams drafting high fueled their continued mediocrity by being forced to draft high, pay those guys huge salaries, and not have the ability to chase worthwhile free agents. Not anymore.
The Steelers, and teams like them, are now going to have players picked off from them more and more by the crappy teams with extra cap space and more holes to fill. Unless...
In my opinion, the only way the Steelers get ahead of the curve on this one and protect their past draft pick investments with future contracts, is to bite the bullet and dump some player contracts devoted to aging stars. As long as Colon, Keisel, Harrison, Taylor, and Polamalu have huge contract numbers under a future static salary cap, guys with proven production and lots of playing time like Keenan Lewis, Mike Wallace, Maurkice Pouncey, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Ramon Foster, Steve McClendon, Emmanuel Sanders, Rashard Mendenhall, Ziggy Hood,Jason Worilds, Cameron Heyward, and Cortez Allen are going to be prime candidates to be poached by other teams. All of those players have contracts expiring within the next three years. How long will it take the Steelers to get themselves out of the salary cap hell they are in and make room to lock these guys up? How long will it take them to get ahead of the curve and free up money to compete in the new age of NFL free agency, an age where significant production from players in their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd years becomes all the more important because the cost of good veterans will keep on rising?