For much of the NFL offseason, they were many questions about how teams could conduct business as we waited the fate of the NFL and the NFLPA agreeing on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Since the proposal passed on Sunday, the business teams have conducted became such a whirlwind that many forget about how important the CBA was in the way teams made their various moves.
Specifically for the Steelers, there are two main things which were greatly affected by them not having to abide by the “30% rule.” In case we have so quickly forgotten exactly what the 30% rule was which had been in place for the 2020 offseason, it means any player’s salary from a contract had to abide by the rule where the base salary (along with bonuses a player was likely to reach) could not have fluctuated either above or below 30% of their base salary the previous year. Because this rule is no longer in place, there are two main things the Steelers were able to do which they would have been severely limited otherwise.
The Steelers were able to trim over $23 million off of their salary cap for 2020 by restructuring many players. Vance McDonald, Chris Boswell, Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Ben Roethlisberger, and Maurkice Pouncey all converted a large portion of their base salary for 2020 into a signing bonus so it could be split evenly across the remaining years of the contract. Other than Boswell, all of these players only have two years remaining so half of the money converted was saved by pushing it to next season.
Had the 30% rule been in place, the Steelers ability to restructure contracts would have been basically nonexistent. In the case of Ben Roethlisberger, he saved the team nearly $10 million in salary cap space for 2020 in his restructure, but had the 30% rule been in place only about $3.2 million would have been able to be kicked down the road. Many of the other players would not have been able to restructure their contract at all. For example, Maurkuce Pouncey would not have been able to do a restructure as his current contract could not have converted anything into a base salary and stayed compliant to the 30% rule.
So without the 30% rule being lifted for the 2020 season, the Steelers would be looking at almost $20 million which they saved in restructures that would not have been available to them. Without the money they saved, the Steelers would not have been able to sign all of their own players to new deals, offer tenders to restricted free agents, and use the franchise tag. With the cost of these things being over $26 million and the Steelers only saving $16 million with the players they cut or retired, there would have been some tough decisions as to who to keep even from the 2019 squad.
Structure of Free Agent Signings
One forgotten aspect of not having to work under the 30% rule is how the Steelers were able to structure the contracts of their newly signed free agents. While Stefen Wisniewski had a contract which would be easy to fit under the 30% rule, even the deal for Derek Watt would not have fit into these parameters. With the third year of the deal for Watt being much more than the other two ($2.75 million base and $1 million roster bonus), the jump in his base salary from $1 million to $1.75 million from year one to year two would not have even been allowed had the CBA not been accepted.
As for Eric Ebron, the financials of his deal have not yet been released at this time. If I were to estimate a reasonable structure, I would assume Ebron would get a $6 million signing bonus with a $1 million base salary for 2020 and a $5 million base salary for 2021. Please do not think these numbers are the actual deal, but I’m just using them for this example. If this were to be the deal, Ebron would count $4 million against the In 2020 and $8 million against the cap I n 2021. Obviously, the jump from $1 million to $5 million in base salary doesn’t come anywhere close to following the 30% rule. To sign Ebron, his hit to the salary cap this year would be even higher than it will most likely end up.
It’s difficult to say exactly how the Steelers and other NFL teams would have structured free-agent contracts should their hands have been tied with this provision. Luckily, we don’t have to worry about it.
On Sunday, March 15, 2020, the NFLPA voted to pass the proposed Collective Bargaining Agreement by the narrowest of margins. The 1019 players who voted for the deal versus the 959 who voted against it did many front offices and fans a huge favor by removing the handcuffs which were in place for doing business this year. As for whether it was a wise decision based on the rest of the deal, that is a whole other discussion. But as for the Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 roster as it currently stands, it would look much different had the CBA not passed.