It’s a narrative that just won’t seem to go away. For some reason, two very different players at different positions on the opposite sides of the ball with very different contract situations are being compared to each other in an “either-or” situation. Other than the fact the news broke about the Pittsburgh Steelers allowing cornerback Steve Nelson to seek a trade only minutes before the report of JuJu Smith-Schuster signing a contract for the 2021 season, these two moves by the Steelers have relatively nothing in common.
Yet the two player’s situation seem to be unfairly linked.
Steelers insider @rayfitt1 on @937theFan on why JuJu/Steven Nelson decision got made: "I think the Steelers looked at Juju as an ascending player and Nelson as a descending player."— Andrew Fillipponi (@ThePoniExpress) March 22, 2021
When these two stories broke, it made sense to believe that they were somehow related. They were possibly the biggest moves the Steelers have linked to them so far this offseason and they were reported within 15 minutes of each other, so it it’s only natural to believe they are related. The initial numbers even seem to line up to make these moves equivalent. Of course, when the intricacies of the numbers come out saying otherwise, it’s generally a good idea to leave the false narrative behind and move forward with the correct information.
Yes, JuJu Smith-Schuster signed a one-year deal for $8 million. Yes, Steven Nelson would save the Steelers $8.25 million toward the 2021 salary cap should he be traded or released. But these numbers, and others involved, are not what they seem.
Because of the void years, JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s salary cap hit for 2021 is only $2.4 million and actually only changed the Steelers salary cap by $1.74 million after factoring in roster displacement. If the reports are true, Zach Banner’s 2021 salary cap hit is higher than that of JuJu Smith-Schuster. An argument could be made that if anyone cost Nelson his job, it would be Banner. Yet the salary cap hit after displacement for both Banner and Smith-Schuster combined is just over half of the $7.59 million savings that Steelers would have after roster displacement without Nelson on the team.
So who’s to blame for the Steelers possibly parting ways with Steven Nelson? It’s simple. Steven Nelson.
Yes, an argument could be made the Steelers are choosing Joe Haden over Steven Nelson. But all the salary moves have not played out yet to know if this is actually the case. All we do know is it the Steelers knew a $14.42 million salary cap hit for 2021 was too much to take into the season with Nelson. This did not necessarily mean the Steelers only option was to move on from their starting cornerback. In fact, we’re not exactly sure what caused the two parties to want to go in different directions.
Whether or not the Steelers signed JuJu Smith-Schuster, Zach Banner, or even Joe Haeg did not directly result in Steven Nelson apparently being on his way out of Pittsburgh. It was the salary cap situation, and the need to reduce Nelsons number for 2021 regardless of other moves. We don’t know if the Steelers looked to extend Nelson in order to lower his $8.25 million salary which could be spread out over multiple years. There’s a good chance they tried to, but it just seems like the two parties couldn’t come together or Nelson’s current and future value.
Here is the ultimate test if the two moves are related: If Steven Nelson would have agreed to a contract extension to lower his salary cap number for 2021, it would have had no bearing on whether or not the Steelers were able to sign JuJu Smith-Schuster. Likewise, had Smith-Schuster chose to take one of his other quality offers rather than return to Pittsburgh, it still would not change the fact that Steelers needed to do something with Nelson’s contract. The Steelers still need to clear a lot of cap space by the fall even though they are currently under the $182.5 million set forth by the NFL. Contract extensions and restructures such as Nelson’s, along with other moves, are going to be necessary at some point.
When running this test to see if these moves would have happened independently of the other, it’s quite apparent these two situations are not linked as they would have occurred regardless of the other. The Steelers were going to need to find more cap space for 2021. The Steelers were going to continue to sign free agents to build their roster for next season. To line one specific player’s addition to another player’s possible subtraction, especially when they are not at the same position, simply isn’t fair.
Ultimately, the Steelers potentially parting ways with Steven Nelson doesn’t have anything to do with JuJu Smith-Schuster or any other specific free agents the team has signed. It ultimately comes down to the numbers, and the Steelers simply can’t have too many base salaries over a certain amount counting towards the 2021 salary cap.
The Steelers chose to sign JuJu Smith-Schuster for the 2021 season. The Steelers chose to allow Steven Nelson to seek a trade. Both moves are the Steelers simply doing business in the offseason. It wasn’t an “either-or” situation any more than the other moves the Steelers have made.
UPDATE: Since this article was published, Steven Nelson has been officially released by the Steelers.