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Updating the Pittsburgh Steelers salary cap situation heading into training camp

Analyzing how the salary cap might impact personnel decisions for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The dog days of summer are upon us and, with them, comes the most boring time of the NFL season. So what better time of the year to roll out how the Pittsburgh Steelers’ salary cap is shaping up? Just because the initial free agency period is over with, the NFL draft has concluded, and most of the draft picks have signed on the dotted line to potentially become millionaires, doesn’t mean cap should be ignored.

Without proper cap management, a team starts out with multiple losses on their record. A team with oodles of cap space generally means it is riddled with young and potentially low-quality players. A team who is right up against the cap may find itself shut out during the crucial free agency period, or forced to jettison valuable veteran players in order to free up space. Luckily for Steelers fans, we have GM Kevin Colbert and his right-hand man Omar Khan.

According to Over the Cap, Pittsburgh is currently sitting with a positive balance of $5,483,820. Anyone who has read my cap articles knows this number doesn’t tell the whole story. This is not something OTC is doing wrong, it’s just how the archaic NFL salary cap works.

What in the $5.8 million figure is left out?

Rule of 51:

This is one of the biggest head-scratching items affecting the cap in the offseason. The NFL only figures the team’s 51 highest salaries into salary cap until the regular season starts. Then the players who have made the 53 man roster are figured into the NFL salary cap. Why ignore calculating in the salaries of those other two players in the offseason? Your guess is as good as mine.

Practice squad:

The Steelers are months away from setting these (potential) 11 players, but in the end, the team still has to account for the players. International Player Pathway program player Christian Scotland-Williamson, is exempted from counting against the cap if he makes the practice squad.

OTA per diem:

Believe it not, NFL players get a per diem for attending OTAs in the offseason. The payouts range from $1,000 to $1,800. However, not every player on the 90-man roster will attend OTAs, so the figure varies. Now that OTAs are over, the Steelers know the full count of the amount which really isn’t very significant.

2019 carryover:

Think of this money as a rainy-day fund. This money is held back in case of injuries during the regular season or other teams looking to poach players from the practice squad by raising their salaries.

Rookies:

The Steelers’ 2018 rookie draft class is under contract with the lone exception of Terrell Edmunds. The first-rounder still remains unsigned, but there shouldn’t be anything to worry about regarding the former Virginia Tech safety and his contract. NFL rookie contracts are slotted and there’s not much in the deals to haggle about. For a little perspective — T.J. Watt didn’t sign his rookie deal until June 14 last year. There’s no rush, as training camp is still weeks away.

Current cap space: $5,483,820

Draft picks including displacement: $1.4 million (Displacement happens anytime a player’s salary is deducted from the roster and another player’s salary replaces it.)

  • The inclusion of 52 and 53 players: $1.11 million
  • Practice squad: $1.4 million
  • OTA per diem: $250,000
  • Carryover: $3.5 million

Total: -$-2,176,180

What does OTC already include in the 2018 cap space?

  • The 2017 carryover: $4 million
  • Injured reserve: $1,125,622 (Does not include Ryan Shazier, as he’s on the PUP list — which is simply a formality to him heading to IR for bookkeeping purposes.)
  • Dead money: $5,818,595 (This amount is from players who were released that had guaranteed money still owed to them.)
  • Le’Veon Bell: Just in case you’re not familiar with how the franchise tag works — once the tag is designated, the full value is applied toward the cap.

Should Steelers fans be worried about clearing up $2.1 million? Nope. Dashawn Phillips, Bryce Harris, and Steven Ridley are currently in the Top 51 salaries and they’re viewed as long shots to make the final roster. They’ll likely be replaced by cheaper players while not leaving any dead cap space. While their replacements will not fix the small cap deficit, it’s a step in that direction. Higher priced vets could end up being cast off and replaced, but another solution could be extending our high-priced, tagged players. Extensions for restricted free agent Anthony Chickillo ($1.9 million), Jordan Berry ($1.9 million), or Chris Boswell ($2.9 million) would exit the Steelers from that $2.1 million cap deficit and lock up valued players for years to come. Bell isn’t included here, as I personally think negotiations are dead and over with. A fall-back plan for freeing up cap space could always be a re-work of Cam Heyward’s contract. This seems unnecessary due to the fact that doing a real re-tool of his deal would lead to more than $5 million in cap savings in 2018. Pittsburgh just doesn’t need that much now unless disaster were to strike.