Bob Smizik: Cap-strapped Steelers can’t even keep Cotchery

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The small minority of Steelers fans who didn’t want to believe the team had a salary-cap problem have been, presumably, jolted to their senses by the events of the on-going free-agency period. The Steelers are a passing team -- even if some don’t want to admit that -- and their No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers have left for better offers.

The only wide receivers under contract who have caught an NFL pass are Antonio Brown, a Pro Bowl player, Markus Wheaton, six career catches, and Derek Moye, two.

And, yes, I know the season doesn’t start until September.

It was one thing to see Emmanuel Sanders, second on the team in receptions and yards, leave for a better deal. That was expected and the Steelers made no move to keep him for the simple reason they didn’t have the cap space to be involved. Sanders got big money, probably too big, from Denver, where he’s thrilled to be playing with Peyton Manning.

It’s another thing to lose Jerricho Cotchery, fourth in receptions, third in yards, to the Carolina Panthers. Cotchery reportedly received a two-year deal worth $5 million. That's not big money but too much for the Steelers to match.

Since the Steelers have the smallest amount of cap room of any team in the NFL, it will be difficult for them to win any bidding wars, no matter how small.

It’s understandable when a team has a roster that produces double-digit wins and trips to the playoffs that cap space might be be scarce. After all, good players that produce wins have to be paid. But the Steelers have been paying players who haven’t produced enough wins -- eight in both of the past two seasons.

Ben Roethlisberger can’t be happy. Ed Bouchette reported that Roethlisberger ‘had been pleading’ with the Steelers to re-sign Cotchery, who led the Steelers with 10 touchdown catches last season.

With Cotchery gone, the Steelers might sign Lance Moore, whose career appears to be in decline. Moore, who will be 31 next season, caught 37 passes for 457 yards for the New Orleans Saints last season. Moore, 5-foot-9, has visited the Steelers and probably will be in their price range.

A positive move the Steelers might make is bringing back outside linebacker James Harrison, who is a free agent after playing last season with Cincinnati. Harrison is one of the most decorated Steelers in their recent history -- a one-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year -- and still might have something left.

The Steelers and Harrison parted after the 2012 season when he balked at taking a significant pay cut. This time he’d probably be amenable to taking the veteran’s minimum of $955,000 plus a $65,000 roster bonus. That salary would count $635,000 against the cap, but would actually be only a $215,000 hit because he’d be replacing a player on the roster who’d be making $420,000.

Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones are scheduled to be the starting outside linebackers and it’s not likely Harrison could change that, at least at the start of the season. But the team has little depth at OLB and Harrison’s ability and veteran presence could be a positive.

The only thing that has transpired in free agency that will affect the Steelers in the draft is the signing of safety Mike Mitchell. That makes safety no longer is a position of need. But just about every other spot on the defense is a need, as is wide receiver and running back.

In his latest mock draft, Mel Kiper has the Steelers taking a cornerback, Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State. Daniel Jeremiah of has the Steelers selecting LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham.

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