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Navigating the Steelers 2021 salary cap situation to keep the Super Bowl window open

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COVID-19 continues to wreck havoc for all. With the NFL now agreeing on a path forward for 2020, the cap floor for 2021 has been set and it isn’t friendly.

NFL: DEC 30 Bengals at Steelers Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Thank the sporting gods! On Friday, the NFL and the NFLPA came to an agreement on what form the 2020 NFL season will take, player remuneration, and training camp protocols. All things being equal, fans will likely be able to at least watch games on TV this season.

However, the agreement also answered a key questions about how things will shape up in 2021 and beyond, including the impact of reduced revenue from limitations or bans on fan attendance at games. As reported by Adam Schefter, while this year’s cap limit will not be impacted, in 2021 there will be a minimum cap number of $175 million with the cap able to increase pending the impact to NFL teams’ revenue. Any loss in NFL revenue is to be managed and spread through to the 2024 season.

What does this mean for the Steelers? With just 41 players under-contract for 2021 and Cameron Heyward, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Matt Feiler, and Alejandro Villanueva leading the off-contract player group for 2021, Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert have even harder decisions to make this coming season and offseason. Further, with Ben Roethlisberger’s much discussed $41.25m cap hit, the onus (or team need) on Ben to bounce-back and potentially sign another restructured contract is even larger.

According to Over The Cap, the Steelers are currently projected to be $15,829,828 over the salary cap if they were to carry their current roster of players into 2021. What is worse is this number ‘does not include cap charges for unsigned rookies’ and ‘don’t adjust the carryover numbers for the change from the top 51 to the regular season accounting numbers’. Additionally, next offseason the projected average cap space would be approximately $15m per team, which is much reduced from teams’ $30m-$40m cap space average around free agency that has been typical of the last few years.

The other piece of bad news? The Franchise Tag and Transition Tag are now a whole lot more expensive, given the tags offer a salary that is either 120% of the players prior year salary or an average of the leading players at the position’s salary/an average percentage of these leading salaries over the past five years. Allocating these tags is a hard enough decision in most seasons, but in 2021 these numbers will be inflated by contracts signed at a cap that could be as much as $25m or 12% larger than next the 2021 salary cap.

So what does this mean for who is resigned, who gets franchise tagged and who is left to enter free agency in 2021? How can the Steelers keep their Super Bowl window open, by keeping their best players on the roster? Here’s a few on my ideas for this season and upcoming offseason:

  • Re-sign Cameron Heyward for 3 years, with ONLY Cam considered for a tag if unsigned.
  • Try anything and everything to restructure Ben Roethlisberger’s mammoth cap hit, if he’s playing well.
  • T.J. Watt’s 5th year option may need to be taken, leaving his next contract till Ben leaves.
  • Restructure Stephon Tuitt’s contract as he’s the only non-Rookie deal player on-contract in 2022.
  • If Steven Nelson continues his performance growth in 2020, sign him to a 3-4 year deal.
  • Joe Haden will need a contract restructure, cutting, or—if Ben doesn’t come back healthy—a trade to a Super Bowl-ready team.
  • Pending the above, Mike Hilton is a massive question mark. I can’t seem him staying after 2020.
  • A hard decision is coming on Alejandro Villanueva vs. Matt Feiler. Let’s pray Al is open to a team friendly deal?
  • Assign the 2022 Franchise Tag to David DeCastro unless he can be re-signed in 2020 for 3+ years.
  • Don’t complicate any of the above with trying to keep Bud Dupree, focus on the rest!
  • Trade or cut Vance McDonald, ideally trade him this season to get another 2021 draft pick.
  • Trade Vince Williams Week 4-6 if Ulysees Gilbert III performs & a run-stopper vet is available.
  • Use the cap space from Vance and Vince, with Dupree going too, to keep JuJu for 3-4 years.
  • If Chris Boswell is kicking well, it may be worth signing him on a longer-term deal as he’s 29.
  • As for James Conner, the Steeler’s cheap running back room is an asset, an incentive laden deal is best.

Now I’ve had the chance to play General Manager (Kevin Colbert) and President of Football & Business Administration (Omar Khan), I’d like to see how you’d manage the Steelers’ likely 5%-10% salary cap reduction in 2021 to keep their Super Bowl window open?