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Why the Steelers might have to choose between Donte Moncrief or a 2020 3rd Round Pick

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If getting a compensatory pick in 2020 requires the Steelers releasing Moncrief, what should the Steelers do?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Which would you rather have: WR Donte Moncrief in 2019, or a 2020 3rd round compensatory draft pick?

It seems crazy to be asking such a question, but there is at least a possibility the Steelers could be faced with this dilemma. I wouldn’t say it’s a probability, but there is a scenario where the Steelers could be out a compensatory pick all together for 2020. How is this the case?

We’ll start with a super-quick recap of the compensatory process and where the Steelers currently stand. Each team either gains or loses Compensatory Free Agents (CFA‘s) during the off-season. In order to receive any compensatory picks, a team must lose more players than gained. After the second Tuesday following the NFL draft, the period for free agents gained or lost affecting the compensatory formula is over. The biggest factor left is a player’s value being adjusted due to playing time (or lack thereof) and postseason awards. I have already published article about these factors a few weeks ago which can be viewed here. But there is one other factor we have yet to cover: players being released.

I also want to add that the compensatory process is so involved it seems like every time I research the subject I learn something new. According to an article on overthecap.com earlier this month, players who are cut by team prior to Week 10 of the NFL season will no longer affect both the previous team’s or current team’s compensatory formula. So while the Steelers are still in line for the eighth of the ten third-round compensatory picks projected for 2020, if one of the players who they lost this past off-season is released prior to Week 10 they would no longer have a net loss and would not have any compensatory consideration.

Ouch.

So is this a possibility and what can the Steelers do to prevent it? Here is the scenario and how the Steelers could go from a third round pick to nothing, and it is completely out of their hands. Across the state, the Philadelphia Eagles have a very interesting situation when it comes to compensatory picks. They already hold the top compensatory pick for 2020 due to the loss of Nick Foles, and they also have a fourth round pick lined up for losing Golden Tate. Currently their fourth round pick for Jordan Hicks and their seventh round pick for Jordan Matthews are canceled by seventh round pick-ups L.J. Fort and Andrew Sendejo.

Due to the nature of the compensatory formula where players cancel out even if they are not in equal rounds, the Eagles could gain an additional fourth round compensatory pick by simply cutting either Fort or Sendejo. Would it be to their benefit to cut either player? Sendejo has a one-year contract for $1.3 million with $500k guaranteed. So releasing him would only carry the $500k in dead money. Fort signed a 3 year deal for about $5.5M. If he were to be released after June 1, the Eagles would only be saving about $90k in 2019 but would have two more years of almost $300k a season in dead money. So if the Eagles wanted to pick up an additional fourth round pick, cutting Sendejo makes a lot more sense from a numbers perspective. But if Fort gets banged up in the preseason and isn’t available while Sendejo plays well, it still isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Fort to be on the chopping block.

Just to be thorough, if Jesse James were to be released by Detroit it would cause the same problem. But James’ cap hit of less than $2.3M in 2019 would more than double if he were to be cut, plus he would carry dead money through 2023. Add in the fact releasing James would not add any picks to the Lions since they currently have six CFA’s gained with none lost, it’s pretty certain he’s not going anywhere.

So if L.J. Fort would be released by the Eagles, is there anything the Steelers can do to save their third round compensatory pick? There is, but it’s not a very desirable option. Just to clarify, it is my understanding Fort signing back with the Steelers (or with any other team) would not affect the compensatory formula at all if he would be released. The only other option remaining for the Steelers would be to release one of the two CFA’s they signed this past off-season.

If this were the route they would choose to go, the Steelers would be faced with either releasing Steven Nelson or Donte Moncrief. Nelson would carry $2.5M in dead money over each of the next three years while Moncrief would have $1.75M the next two seasons. Both players would save the Steelers $1.5M towards the 2019 salary cap. Purely from a numbers standpoint, it would make much more sense to release Donte Moncrief.

So what should the Steelers do if this scenario plays out? Is having Moncrief on the roster for 2019 more important than the 2020 third round pick they could receive?

I think my answer is how most people will choose to respond: let’s wait and see. If Moncrief is living up to his potential when he had a serviceable quarterback throwing him the ball, he could be a fantastic pick up for the Steelers. On the flip side, the Steelers could be faced with another scenario where a decent player just didn’t fit quite right. Depending on training camp and the preseason, Moncrief’s value could range from being the player who takes the pressure off of JuJu Smith–Schuster to fighting to be active each week much like Justin Hunter last season before he was injured.

If I were to guess right now, I would be the eternal optimist and say Moncrief is worth more than a third round pick for the Steelers. But rather than worry about this, I’m just praying L.J. Fort comes through for the Eagles so none of this even matters.