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All The Right Moves

It’s all starting to make sense. The Steelers have not made the playoffs the past two seasons. Those two years have seen the team part ways with players who were integral to a sustained run of success that resulted in a pair of Super Bowl championships.

The defense got old and slow, the offense lost firepower and the locker room emptied of the veteran leadership that made the 2000’s so special.

In other words, it all went according to plan.

When general manager Kevin Colbert signed so many veteran players to long-term extensions several years ago, he knew full well the game he was playing: Risk the future for the now. Those deals were going to wreck the team’s future salary caps. The hope, however, was to keep that championship window open just a little longer.

It almost worked. The 2010 team reached the Super Bowl; a season later they went 12-4 before losing a freakish overtime game in Denver to the Tim Tebow-led Broncos. Then, right on cue, players got old, cap hits came and the playoffs passed by.

And the rebuilding—to the extent that consecutive .500 seasons can be considered “rebuilding”—took place.

That rebuild is not yet complete, but the heavy lifting has been done.

The Steelers released former All-Pro linebacker LaMarr Woodley last month and let out a sigh of relief that echoed throughout the AFC North. The team was finally out from under their most disastrous contract-related mistake in recent memory.

When the Steelers signed Woodley to a $61.5 million contract in 2011, they had little way of knowing that he would miss nearly 45 percent of the team’s defensive plays over the next three seasons. But that’s exactly what happened. Nagging injuries—in 2011, again in 2012, and yet again in 2013—turned the once-dangerous pass-rusher into just another guy opposing teams handled with one blocker. That dramatically hastened the demise of the once-feared Steelers defense.

But now, with the overpaid and seldom-played Woodley out of the picture, the final piece of the Steelers salary cup puzzle is in place. Woodley’s release saves the team $25 million over the next three seasons. His $8 million this season alone will pay for the entire 2014 draft class.

The Steelers are currently on the books for $94 million in salary for the 2015 season, according to OverTheCap.com. The NFL salary cap is expected to reach $140 million that same season. Factor in the next two draft classes, and the Steelers will realistically enter next offseason more than $30 million under the cap.

They will likely extend Ben Roethlisberger soon. They will be able to do the same with offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro if they choose. All that extra cap space will allow them the luxury of doing so with ease, and still have money to add pieces in free agency.

None of this happened by happy accident. The current financial reality of the NFL dictates that sometimes you have to pay the piper.

The Steelers are paid up.

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