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Can the Steelers keep their top four cornerbacks without killing the 2021 salary cap?

Is it possible for the Steelers to have the same secondary in 2021 without adding money to their salary cap situation?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

One position for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021 which seems to be somewhat up in the air is that of cornerback. With two players entering the last year of the contracts and having sizable salary cap numbers, along with the next two players being unrestricted free agents, Steelers fans aren’t sure how many corners from 2020 will still be with the Steelers come Week 1.

With all four of these players seeing the field at the same time in subpackage football, it sure would be nice if the Steelers could keep Steven Nelson, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, and Cameron Sutton. Unfortunately, the salary cap situation isn’t doing anything to help matters. But what if there was a way to keep all four players and not change the salary cap hit for the season? Should the Steelers pull the trigger?

I’m going to give a hypothetical situation in which the Steelers extend both Steven Nelson and Joe Haden in order to save the money to sign both Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton. Of course, these numbers are just showing that it’s possible as it will ultimately be up to the players to accept the terms of the contract. This exercise is merely showing how this could be done if the Steelers want to keep their secondary intact for 2021. Note both starting safeties for Pittsburgh, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, are still on their rookie deals and are locked in with the Steelers for 2021.


The Goal

Currently, the salary cap numbers for Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are both in the top five for the Steelers. With $15.575 million as the cap number for Joe Haden and $14.42 million for Steven Nelson, the total salary cap obligation for these two players is $29,995,000. For this exercise, we’ll give ourselves a leeway of $5k and simply make the number $30 million.


The Extensions

First off we have Joe Haden who is set to make a base salary of $7 million in 2021. His prorated bonus of $8.575 million is going to count towards the salary cap in 2021 no matter what else happens. It is much like the $22.25 million which is a dead cap hit for Ben Roethlisberger and can’t be part of any renegotiation.

For Haden, let’s add two more years to his contract. While some might not want to do this with the Steelers’ corner being set to turn 32 next month, Haden has not shown a big drop off in his production at this time. For this extension, we are simply going to take the money Haden would have been paid in 2021 and turn all but the league minimum salary into a signing bonus. We’re not going to pay him any more in 2021, although the Steelers could choose to throw in a little bit more of a signing bonus as part of the extension in order to get the deal done. The other thing I’m not going to worry about is his exact yearly salary and the structure of it for the next two years. While this would be important in making this happen, it doesn’t ultimately affect the numbers for 2021 and therefore I will leave that up to the Steelers and Haden.

With Joe Haden now set to have a base salary of $1.075 million for 2021 with this hypothetical extension, the remaining $5.925 million would be his signing bonus. Spreading that out over three years, it would allow the Steelers to save $3.95 million off of Haden’s cap number for 2021, ultimately leaving it at $11.625 million.

As for Steven Nelson, he is set to make a base salary of $8.25 million in 2021 and has a prorated bonus of $6.17 million. Since he is only 28 years old, lets’ do an extension for another three years past 2021. The yearly salary could be tricky with Nelson as he could command more than the $8.5 million per year he received in 2019. Much like Haden, we’re not interested in the yearly salaries and are simply taking his 2021 salary and turning it into as much signing bonus as possible. Spreading it out over four years, the $7.425 million signing bonus gives a salary cap reduction of over $5.5 million with the new figure for 2021 coming in at $8,851,250.


The New Contracts

Now that the extensions are done, what about signing both Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton? While Pro Football Focus has Hilton getting a deal for an estimated $4 million per season and Sutton cashing in at $2.75 million per season, these estimates seem to be extremely conservative. For this reason, we’re going to more than double these estimates in order to give a more realistic evaluation.

For Mike Hilton, I’m going to cheat a little bit. I am going to give Mike Hilton the exact same contract Steven Nelson received in 2019. This gives him $25.5 million over three years which comes to an average of $8.5 million per season. In Nelson‘s deal, he had a base salary in 2019 of $1.5 million and was given a $7.5 million signing bonus. With these numbers, the cap hit the first season comes in at $4 million.

For Cam Sutton, I’m going to give him 75% of Steven Nelson‘s last contract distributed in the same manner. This comes to $19.125 million for three seasons which averages $6.375 million per year. The first season would see Sutton with a base salary of $1.125 million and a signing bonus of $5.625 million. With these numbers, Sutton’s salary cap hit for 2021 would be $3 million.


The Total

When totaling the 2021 cap number for each of these four players with these four deals, it comes out as follows:

Joe Haden: $11,625,000
Steven Nelson: $8,851,250
Mike Hilton: $4,000,000
Cameron Sutton: $3,000,000
Total: $27,476,250


The Conclusion

So, using the numbers and past contracts, I’ve shown that it’s at least possible to get all four top cornerbacks for the Steelers under contract for the 2021 season with a salary cap hit less than what only two of them carry right now. The Steelers could even end up with all four players and save $2.5 million against the cap if they could work out these deals.

There lies the problem number one. Can the Steelers actually make these type of contracts happen? Can they do extensions with Joe Haden and Steven Nelson without giving them any new money for this season? Would Mike Hilton and Camm Sutton take the deals outlined above?

There’s also one other issue involved. The salary cap hit for these four players in 2022 begins two seasons of big spending. Just looking at the hypothetical contracts for Hilton and Sutton added to the dead money of the extensions of Haden and Nelson and the Steelers are already more than $22.6 million towards the salary cap in 2022. This does not include the base salary for both Haden and Nelson and whatever they would work out. If they were to each get $10 million, the Steelers will be looking at more than $42 million towards the cornerback position from just the top four players, let alone their additional depth.

Also, I used examples which gave both Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton very good value. It’s difficult to say exactly what these players would get on the open market, but I wanted to over-value their contracts just to show the numbers could work for this season.

So while it could work out for the Steelers to keep both Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton while extending Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, it’s the years beyond 2021 which could bring the bigger questions. If the Steelers think they have another player such as James Pierre ready to take the next step at corner, perhaps it’s only three of these four players who land with the Steelers in 2021.