In a previous article, I laid out that it would be fiscally irresponsible for the Pittsburgh Steelers to extend any of their 19 unrestricted free agents until the team sees what happens with the 2021 NFL salary cap. These players will just have to wait to see how the finances work out and play on a one-year deal. There is speculation that without fans in the stands for the 2020 season, NFL profits will tank. The Collective Bargaining Agreement points out (as clear as the CBA can get) how profits are split in the NFL between the NFLPA and the owners. This is not up for debate, nor the owners can circumvent it to placate the players. If the NFL profits plummet by $30-80 million in the 2020 season, then the NFL salary cap HAS to follow the same trajectory. There could be an agreement between the players and the owners that would hold off such a drastic measure, but any such an agreement would have to be ratified by both parties. The sides have not taken up such talks yet but are expected to do so in the near future.
Let’s head over to Over the Cap and look at the league as a whole and how many teams could absorb a $30 million 2021 cap reduction. For now, let’s focus on effective cap space. OTC figures effective cap space when current contracts are taken into account along with base minimum contracts so a team has 51 players under contract. Of the 32 teams, the Steelers and seven other teams would be over the cap and unable to absorb such a hit. The chart at OTC shows the Steelers at $19.5 million under the cap (with a projected increase in the salary cap, not a reduction), but as I pointed out in a previous article, this is a misleading number.
The Steelers are closer to $13.4 million under the cap because of contracts which are not yet included in the 2021 cap. Two draft classes, the 52nd, and 53rd players, and the team’s practice squad are not included and will need to be accounted for by the time the 2021 regular season would start.
At the bare minimum, this puts the Steelers $16.6 million over the cap. Steelers Nation has to take into account the team does not have nine positions without starters signed for 2021. James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jordan Berry, Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler, Alejandro Villanueva, Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree, and Daniel McCullers (I have him penciled in as the starting nose tackle) are all slated to hit free agency at the end of 2020. Heyward, Dupree, Hilton, Feiler, and Smith-Schuster could all command rich contracts that would include significant signing bonuses. Even if the players took veteran minimums for their base salaries, their signing bonuses should be costly. Only Stephon Tuitt is signed through the 2022 season, so do not look for any restructures which could give the team relief in 2021 with the team’s current contracts.
What kind of magic will general manager Kevin Colbert and right-hand man Omar Khan pull off to even remain competitive if an agreement between the players and owners is not hammered out? Will Ben Roethlisberger be a “team-first” player and take one for the franchise and redo his contract and forfeit his $15 roster bonus and $2 million of his league-high $41 million salary to keep the team partially intact?
What other measures are possible for this offseason and into 2021? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
If you are unclear on some of the salary cap issues which may concern the Pittsburgh Steelers, make sure you check out my Salary Cap FAQ.