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The Steelers had to rework Ben Roethlisberger's deal to comply with the 2013 salary cap. / Jason Bridge, USA TODAY Sports

In the NFL right now, Paul is making out like a bandit. It's Peter who's getting robbed.

With the start of the league year approaching and a salary cap flatter than most expected, there's been a run of what have been termed "restructures" around the league. It's a term that connotes a somewhat involved process, but it's actually a simple move in which the money a player is slated to receive in the current season is repackaged as a signing bonus, thus allowing the proration of the guaranteed money to be spread over the rest of the contract.

Like the saying goes, it's robbing Peter to pay Paul: All of the cap room saved in the current year is being pushed back to later years.

It happens every year in the NFL as competitive teams spend up to the cap to fill in the final pieces of what they believe is a Super Bowl-worthy roster. But the extent of the occurrences this year hasn't been seen in the league since the late 1990s and early 2000s when teams were still trying to learn how to manage the salary cap.

By now, teams know better. Or at least they should.

With clubs like the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers having to restructure the deals of as many as 10 players, it's an indication much of the league was caught off guard by how flat the cap has been under the new collective bargaining agreement. (However in the Cowboys' case, they must finish serving a $10 million cap penalty assessed against them last year for overspending during the cap-less 2010 offseason.)

This season, it's expected to be roughly $123 million, which is where it was back in 2009 in the final capped year of the previous CBA. The cap won't spike in coming years despite the expected influx of big dollars from TV contracts in 2015.

The NFL Players Association speaks of the improvement in overall benefits for the players as well as the higher cash minimums teams must spend (89% of the salary cap over the coming a four-year period from 2013-16).

In the meantime, teams are scrambling to get under the cap before the league year begins on March 12.

"You thought the cap would go up more than it has. That's been a little bit of a surprise," said former player agent Joel Corry, now a salary-cap and contract analyst for NationalFootballPost.com. "The big-name guys are going to get paid regardless of whether it's a flat cap or not. What you're going to see is the elimination of the middle class. You're going to have more top-heavy rosters like Pittsburgh where the top-heavy guys take up more of a significant part of the cap. You're going to see more draft picks and minimum guys on the team if this continues."

Quarterbacks and their $20-million-plus cap figures are weighing teams down these days. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford's $20.82 million cap number in 2013 would be 16.9% of a $123 million salary cap.

So teams have been lowering cap numbers across their rosters by guaranteeing the money owed this season. For example, Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons got $7.125 million of the $7.875 million he was owed this season in non-guaranteed base salary and roster bonus as a guaranteed signing bonus. It's the second straight year he's restructured.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Cowboys wideout Miles Austin, cornerback Brandon Carr, center Ryan Cook, linebacker DeMarcus Ware and tight end Jason Witten are among the latest to restructure their deals, joining Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson and center Dominic Raiola, Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka and New Orleans Saints guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs as players who did simple restructures. (New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady signed an extension with new money, not a basic guarantee of what he was already owed.)

The player doesn't lose a dime in the process. In fact, he gets his money quicker and with guarantees. The problem is, his cap numbers in upcoming seasons get inflated, meaning he's made himself more of a target to get cut down the line.

Timmons, for example, has cap numbers of $11.816 million in 2014 and $12.566 million in 2015. The Steelers will probably have to keep chasing those figures with restructures or extensions.

"The important thing from a club's perspective is to pick the guys on the roster who are going to be on the roster for two or three more years," said Mark Levin, the NFLPA's director of salary cap and administration. "You're not going to pick a 12-year veteran to renegotiate his cap number and push out more money if you can avoid it. You want to pick your star players you suspect will be on the team so you don't have a big dead-money problem."

Sometimes, the threat of dead money can save a player's job. Case in point: Cowboys tackle Doug Free's cap number is $10.02 million - the same figure as if he's cut because the Cowboys did a simple restructure with Free last year. If the charge is the same either way, it's best to just keep the player.

But a lot of contracts were written in the past two years with higher expected salary cap numbers by now. That money has been, and will be, allocated elsewhere (in benefits or in performance-pay pools) because the league and the union both don't want a spike in the cap.

"You don't want to have a year where it increases $2 million and then $12 million the next year. That's not fair to the guys who did long-term deals in the years it only went up $2 million," Levin said. "You smooth it out so that the increases are fairly consistent."

That means teams chasing these big deals and basically buying on credit will have to continue to do so for a few more years. As Corry said, that will hurt the earning potential of the middle class in the NFL. Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has said he won't get caught in the cycle of restructuring deals to keep the nucleus of a Super Bowl-winning team together, as the franchise did following its Super Bowl XXXV victory.

Newsome has to pay quarterback Joe Flacco the going rate of elite quarterbacks. With no restructures, that means the Ravens will rely upon younger, cheaper talent to fill out the roster around Flacco, running back Ray Rice (who signed a five-year $40 million deal last summer) and few other key pieces.

"For a couple of years it may be ongoing," Corry said. "For some teams, there are always going to be some restructures because it's their style of cap management: 'I'll buy today what I can't afford and worry about paying for it tomorrow.'

"But on the whole, it should calm down as more money gets infused under the cap in the coming years."

***

Follow Mike Garafolo on Twitter @mikegarafolo



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Flat salary cap forcing NFL teams to restructure numerous contracts

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