How Panthers Game Bring Steelers Salary Cap Choices into Perspective

Just how heavily are the Pittsburgh Steelers to pay for their salary cap management sins? A quick look at who appears, and doesn’t appear on the injury report suggests the Sunday night game vs. the Carolina Panthers could tell us a lot.

  • The key to successful salary cap management is to get the most bang for your buck.

If every team has the same amount to spend on players then the team that invests wisely will benefit the most on the field. In theory it is simple.

But unlike baseball, as portrayed in Money Ball, football players don’t have 162 games to give the number crunchers statistically valid samples. Which makes those types of cost-benefit calculations in the NFL more of an art than a science.

Which brings us to the Steelers injury report.

  • On it we find Steve McLendon, who is nursing a shoulder injury. Off it we find Lance Moore who nursed a groin injury during camp.

Those names figure prominently because both of them are tied to cost-benefit personnel decision the Steelers made this spring.

Woods, Thomas and Pitfalls of Trading Proven Performance for “Value”

If Steve McLendon can’t play and, for the record he is practicing (thank God), the proverbial “next man up” is Cam Thomas.

Thomas however, was not the Steelers first choice to back up McLendon. Pittsburgh had invested a lot in developing Al Woods and wanted him back. Al Woods wanted back. But Tennesse offered more, and Woods is now a Titan.

So the Steelers went out and signed Thomas. So far, that hasn’t worked out. Matt C. Steel of Steel City Insider went as far as to say this:

I’m seriously beginning to question the coaching staff’s ability to evaluate talent. How is it that they believed Thomas was worth a roster spot, let alone a stating spot along the line? I’m beginning to think the Steelers’ Defensive MVP the second half of last season was Al Woods. I bet they wished they gave him that extra million over two years now.

Steel has plenty of company. Dale Lolley has singled Thomas out multiple times for being a liability to the run defense. He and others such as BTSC’s Jeff Hartman argue that playing Stephon Tuitt would at least give the Notre Dame rookie some experience. So in pure football terms, Steel might be right.

  • But football needs don’t trump salary cap realities.

The Steelers, forced to carry dead money from LaMarr Woodley and Willie Colon’s contract, and with multiple restructures by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Troy Polamalu, simply didn’t have the cap space to offer Woods an extra million.

  • The Steelers gambled that, for a little less, they could get comparable performance out of Thomas.

Thus far, that’s looking like a bad bet. Perhaps that will change with time.

Moore Cotchery Please!

Another player whom the Steelers wanted and who wanted to stay in Pittsburgh is Jerricho Cotchery. In 2013 Cotchery was a veritable touchdown catching machine, catching 10 touchdown passes out of 46 receptions.

  • Among fans and the press, Cotchery’s return was all but a given.

When rumors surfaced about him being wood, reporters pointed out that he was on a Steelers fan cruise. As it turns out, cruise or no, salary cap realities once again reared their head. Carolina offered starting money. The Steeler couldn’t touch that.

  • So instead, they went out and signed Lance Moore.

On paper, Moore looks to provide more bang for less buck as the chart below details:

jerricho cotchery lance moore compared stats steelers receptions

The two men’s production is strikingly similar, with Cotchery getting the edge in yards per catch, while Moore has a higher percentages in Steel Curtain Rising’s home-grown amateur saber metric of “catches for touchdowns and games with a touchdown.”

  • But therein lies the rub.

Moore has missed two games already this year, Cotchery has started into. Salary cap dollars can’t deliver value while you’re on the bench. So while might have more paper value for Moore, in reality Cotchery’s actually producing for Carolina.

So if Moore does suit up Tuesday night, we’ll see if he can deliver where Justin Brown fell short, in the process open things up for Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton.

It will also be interesting to see how Cotchery holds up against Polamalu, Taylor, and Michael Mitchell – three other salary cap choices who helped force the Steelers into letting him go.

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