Credit card football: How the Steelers build a roster

PITTSBURGH -- Kevin Colbert lives in two worlds as general manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There's the world of scouting reports, player intangibles and maximizing talent.

Then there's the world of salary-cap projections, roster bonuses and dead money, all of which he likens to the use of a credit card.

"Sooner or later you have to pay it off," Colbert said about the salary cap. "We can do things to create room, but the money never goes away. The money goes away if you terminate a player, but you still have dead money that accelerates into the given year. You pay that interest like a credit card."

Not many understand the percentage yields on those magnetic stripes better than Colbert, who in 19 years with the organization has spent a billion-plus dollars on the way to two Super Bowls and 12 playoff appearances.

Colbert has faced nearly every scenario since joining the organization in 2000 as director of football operations, officially becoming general manager in 2010.

He helped extend quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract three times.

He drafted Antonio Brown in the sixth round, watched him become an All-Pro, absorbed $21.12 million in dead money by trading him, then flipped the third-round pick from that trade as part of a draft-day deal for linebacker Devin Bush.

He has straddled the salary-cap threshold only to create ample space in a matter of days thanks to veteran restructures.

He selected three Pro Bowlers from the same 2017 draft class but has missed on multiple cornerbacks.

He has exhausted every option trying to replace transcendent talent Ryan Shazier at linebacker.

All these decisions collide with a race against time.

Colbert is going year-to-year on a contract that expires in May 2020 but wants one more Lombardi, and he wants it with Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin. He'd like to think the work done from January to August will clear the path, but he dwells in uncertainty every preseason.

"We think we make the right decisions, but until we play, we don’t know," Colbert said.

In a recent interview with ESPN, Colbert lays out some of the Steelers' pillars for roster-building that he believes work out more often than not.

Mapping out future years is a must

The Steelers have $5.3 million in cap space in 2019, but that's only part of the big picture. The front office projects four years out, and every contract negotiation is done through that prism.

"We keep a running total and look at, 'OK, in 2019 if we do this (deal), it could affect what we do in 2021,'" Colbert said.

And 2022, a year in which no veterans are under contract. All of the Steelers' big extensions expire by then. That probably will remain the case after negotiations with cornerback Joe Haden, whose looming extension is expected to run through 2021.

Predicting durability, aging requires some luck

Pittsburgh isn't looking for two-year outs on their long-term extensions. It wants players good enough to fulfill four- and five-year deals.

Colbert identifies talent that he believes will get that done, and he's betting that player maintains a high level of play into his early 30s. Studying trends can help but only guide so far.

"You also look at his history -- the more durable a player is in college or early in his career, the probability of him being healthy moving forward is greater," Colbert said. "But it’s still a matter of luck on both parts really."

Steelers' longevity contracts an unwritten selling point

The Steelers have been batting above .800 on players going deep into mega-deals, with Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, defensive end Cam Heyward, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and guard David DeCastro the latest examples.

Pouncey and Roethlisberger just re-upped after playing out their long-term deals; DeCastro and Heyward are in years four and five of six-year pacts; Villanueva made Pro Bowls in the first two years of a four-year contract.

The Steelers hold this success rate in the back pocket during negotiations, but they don't pull it out.

"If the agent does his homework, he can pretty much see we’ve had some success in signing our own, having them reach the end of those contracts more often than not," Colbert said.

And they probably aren't changing their guaranteed contract structure

The Steelers are known for offering no true contract guarantees beyond the signing bonus, a structure that was problematic for now-New York Jet Le'Veon Bell during his franchise tag holdout. Many NFL teams get creative with guarantees, maybe offering the first-year salary or more to sweeten the deal.

But Colbert is quick to point out: Players don't have to accept their deals.

"Why would you vary from something that’s been successful for you?" Colbert asked rhetorically of the approach. "It doesn't guarantee anything moving forward, but it leans toward being more successful than not."

After 10 years with the Steelers, guard Ramon Foster believes the franchise's intent for paying their players the full balance of a deal helps offset the guarantees issue.

"There have been maybe one or two guys here who haven’t gotten the majority of their contract. That’s it," Foster said. "It’s a land of opportunity. If you are good enough, they are going to make a way for you.”

Colbert stresses this is what the Steelers do now, and he can't predict how the league will shift. Forecasting an approach under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement starting in 2021 is too difficult. But for now, the process is clear-cut.

"We’re going to stay with what we’ve found to be a prudent way to run the organization," he said. "If a player doesn’t agree with it, he doesn’t have to sign the deal."

They don't cap star power

Most salary-cap data says teams spend around 50 percent of their money on about 10 players. In fact, the dozen-plus teams with $10 million of 2019 cap space or less average about 6.5 rostered players with a cap hit of at least $8 million this year.

Colbert doesn't budget for good players this way, though. Building a roster still comes down to identifying the right pieces for a winner and working hard to make the rest work.

"You never want to limit it, that’s for sure," Colbert said. "The key is to have the right 10 players taking up that much (50 percent) of your cap. If you don’t have the right 10 players, you’re going to have issues."

The free-agency process that 'never stops'

The Steelers examine three key points with each free agent they are considering: What they think he will cost, what they are willing to pay, and what would make them walk away.

Colbert is in constant contact with Tomlin and his scouting staff about available players, and he relies heavily on vice president of football and business administration Omar Khan and football administration coordinator Samir Suleiman to lay the groundwork for deals.

The Steelers rank free agents, then try to match the ranking with appropriate value.

"Omar and Samir, they do a nice job handling that side of it," Colbert said. "We talk all the time -- 'We’re interested in this player, we think he’s going to be worth this much.' It’s their job to provide me the information to be able to manage the decisions that we feel are best for our football team. Once we place an evaluation on a free agent, then we try to guesstimate where he fits among the salary structure, what his market might be."

Always 'stay current'

Important to Colbert is sensing how the game is shifting on the field. His example: 2014 first-round pick Shazier, at 232 pounds, wasn't a prototypical inside linebacker, but the Steelers sensed an increasingly more lateral game -- especially in college -- was prioritizing speed.

"You could sense this would probably leak into our league," Colbert said. "We may have been a couple years ahead of where the game is now."

Since then, the Steelers have drafted three safeties with an average measurable of 6-foot-1 1/2 and 211 pounds, and the 5-11, 234-pound Bush could pass for a hybrid safety.

Colbert is always looking for the next trend.

"We have to stay current with what is happening in our game," Colbert said. "Sometimes we’re part of that. Sometimes it’s happening around us and we have to react to it. It’s a very cyclical game. Whatever happens on offense, the defense has to catch up and vice versa. We have to acknowledge that in our evaluations where we may value one thing -- maybe size and strength more in the past -- but now since the game has become more horizontal, you probably have to value speed and athleticism. It changes, but we have to stay not only with it, but try to be ahead of it."