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As the new league year approaches, it’s the Steelers’ Restricted Free Agents who should be the story

With all the talk of franchise tags, free agency, and releasing players under contract, finding the money to offer RFA tenders should be priority number one

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

So much of the time and energy revolving around the Pittsburgh Steelers and the 2020 off-season is finding money for certain things. Between resigning or offering the franchise tag to Bud Dupree or bringing in an outside free agent, one of the most important areas in which the Steelers need to find salary cap space is offering their restricted free agents tenders in order to retain them for 2020. When a player is an RFA, they are generally regarded as someone a team can easily keep for the following season. But these tenders come at a cost, and the Steelers cannot afford even one of them at this moment.

The Steelers currently have five restricted free agents for the 2020 season. They have until the beginning of the league year to offer a tender to each of them or they will be converted to an unrestricted free agent. The players are Matt Feiler, Mike Hilton, Zach Banner, Jordan Dangerfield, and Kameron Canaday. The options for these players are to offer them a first round, second round or original round tender. The first round tender comes with a projected price tag of over $4.5 million while a second round tender is just under $3.3 million. The original round tender comes in at just over $2.1 million.

For those who are not exactly sure how this works, the tender given a player determines how much salary they are paid should they sign the contract. It also determines how much compensation the Steelers would get in return if the player signed with another team. Of course, the Steelers would still have a “right of first refusal” with each player they offer a tender meaning they can match the contract offered by another team. If the Steelers decline to match the offer, they would receive the corresponding draft pick.

Of the five RFA’s the Steelers have this off-season, the only one who was drafted was Zach Banner who was selected in the fourth round by the Indianapolis Colts. So if the Steelers offered Banner an original round tender and he signed with another team they would receive a fourth-round pick in return. As for the other players who were not drafted, the Steelers would just have the “right of first refusal” to match an offer but would receive no compensation if they chose to let the player go.

During the 2019 off-season, the Steelers offered B.J. Finney a second round tender for the season. Playing under the tender gave Finney just over $3 million in salary for 2019. The Steelers also offered an original round tender to tight end Xavier Grimble which paid him just over $2 million even though he was released the first week of October.

So which of the five RFA’s can the Steelers afford to offer a tender? The easiest answer is probably long snapper Kameron Canaday who the Steelers will probably allow to become an unrestricted free agent and attempt to sign for the league minimum. Safety Jordan Dangerfield will most likely be in the exact same situation. It is the final three players who become tricky.

If the Steelers had the resources, they would possibly offer Zach Banner an original round tender and both Matt Feiler and Mike Hilton second round tenders. The problem is, the price tag of these three tenders is projected to be over $8.5 million. If the Steelers choose to use the franchise tag on linebacker Bud Dupree, the cost of retaining these four players would be almost $25 million. Attempting to clear that much cap space by the beginning of the league year is a task which may not be possible because the amount of cuts it would take would be devastating.

If any of these players are to get a tender from the Steelers, Matt Feiler would be the most likely. Contrary to some opinions, finding quality offensive lineman is one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL next to finding a franchise quarterback. Not only was Feiler arguably the best lineman on the Steelers, he played every offensive snap in 2019 which helped to earn him more than $600k in bonus salary.

Mike Hilton would be another player the Steelers would like to offer a tender in order to keep their defense in tact, but finding the money may be too large of a task. Zach Banner is yet another player the Steelers would like to retain for 2020, but the financial constraints may find the Steelers attempting to keep a him at a lower price than what the restricted free agent tender brings.

So while many believe the Steelers keeping Bud Dupree by using the franchise tag is a wise decision, it is going to take up a lot of salary the Steelers don’t have at the moment. While many of us are waiting for news of the Steelers decision, the real contracts to look for may be what tenders the Steelers end up using for the restricted free agents.