Although a one-word article would be nice to write. I feel a bit of an explanation is warranted. Not only is the answer money, but it might not be ‘money’ in the way Steelers fans think about it.
So what do I mean by money?
As most people know, the Pittsburgh Steelers salary cap situation is not in the best shape at the moment going into the 2021 offseason. The Steelers are still well over the projected salary cap even after the retirements a Vance McDonald and Maurkice Pouncey.
But even if the Steelers were more in the realm of a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars who are currently sitting with over $75 million in cap space, it still wouldn’t be likely that they use the franchise tag in 2021. It’s not about spending money that the Steelers don’t have, it’s more about the players not being worth the contract that comes with the franchise tag.
To better explain, let’s look at the top Steelers players set to earn the most on the open market that will become free agents when the league year begins on March 17. Before diving in, I do want to mention another option, which is slightly less expensive, being the transition tag. There is no compensation tied to losing a player if they sign a deal elsewhere as it would only be a right of first refusal in order to match the contract. Even though the transition tag is generally a couple million dollars less than the franchise tag, we’ll stick with the franchise numbers for now.
First off is the player who the Steelers used the franchise tag on in 2020. Dupree was paid $15.828 million in 2020 which was the franchise tag number for a linebacker. Although Dupree did make a case for being paid more saying he should be classified as a defensive end, nothing seemed to ever come about from his objection.
With Dupree already being franchise tagged once, to have the tag placed on him again would mean he would be paid 120% of his previous year’s salary. Because of this, it would cost to Steelers $18.99 million for Dupree for 2021. I don’t think it would be difficult to agree this is too much to pay for an outside linebacker on the Steelers not named T.J. Watt, let alone one coming off of an ACL injury. In all honesty, Dupree would probably not even be worth the $15.657 million which is the projected franchise tag amount for 2021 according to overthecap.com.
One player who made draw a yearly salary equal to what he would receive with the franchise tag is wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. With a projected franchise tag tender $16.43 million for wide receivers according to OTC, there is the possibility Smith-Schuster gets a yearly contract of that magnitude. Unfortunately, it won’t be in Pittsburgh.
With three other young wide receivers on rookie deals, along with their salary cap situation, it would not make sense to use the tag on Smith-Schuster and spend that much money for the one season to gain his services. But out of all the possible unrestricted free agents for the Steelers in 2021, Smith-Schuster probably would have the best chance of receiving the franchise tag if they were going to use it on anyone. Because the numbers just don’t add up, this is the biggest reason why the Steelers shouldn’t use the tag in 2021.
Another player who some feel could command a decent salary on the free-agent market is starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Even if the Steelers felt like Big Al needed to help them bridge the gap in their offensive line for another season, the projected $14.507 million needed is more than twice what they would probably be willing to pay.
Mike Hilton & Cam Sutton
The next two highest priority free agents for the Steelers are most likely cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton. Neither player is a starter in Pittsburgh, especially if they keep both Steven Nelson and Joe Haden who are both entering the final year of their contracts. With a projected franchise tag number of $15.266 million for a cornerback, the Steelers probably couldn’t afford both players for this combined amount. Even if they could, are either Hilton or Sutton a $15 million per year cornerback?
Even if the Steelers are not over the salary cap at the moment, there really isn’t a player set to be a free agent in 2021 who would command of the salary the Steelers would have to pay with the franchise tag. The only player I saw last year as a possibility for 2021 would have been defensive tackle Cameron Heyward if he and the Steelers had not reached a long-term deal just prior to the 2020 season. If both sides wouldn’t have come to the agreement, the Steelers could have retained Heyward for a projected $14.178 million this season which is slightly less than his 2021 salary cap number of $14.55 million.
On February 23 rolls around, don’t look for the Steelers to use the franchise tag then or the following two weeks leading up to the 4 PM deadline on March 9. Even with the large number of unrestricted free agents said to hit the market from the Steelers when the newly year begins, none of the players appear to be worth the large price tag it would take to keep them for the 2021 season by using the franchise or transition tag. It’s not to say the Steelers should not look to keep any of these players, it’s just the franchise tag does not seem to be the best avenue as the price is simply too high.