The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers looked to be in serious trouble in February. With the salary cap set to go down for the first time in NFL history, and the Steelers up against what the salary cap would have projected to be without the 2020 global pandemic, they were one of many NFL teams who were having to do unprecedented things in order to become and maintain salary cap compliance.
Although there were a number of things that were not ideal as ghey had to make tough decisions, the Steelers managed to get under the salary cap and still have room to work as they head into the NFL draft. According to my latest estimate, the Steelers are $11.25 million under the salary cap at the moment.
Going from around $30 million over the salary cap to start the offseason to more than $10 million under the cap, the Steelers did have to make some hard decisions. They were aided in some moves by the two retirements of Vance McDonald and Maurkice Pouncey. Had neither play retired, chances are the Steelers would have had to make additional cuts. To date, the only players the Steelers have had to release were linebacker Vince Williams and cornerback Steven Nelson. Combined, the Steelers shaved just under $12 million off the salary cap after figuring roster displacement.
With the Steelers having over 20 unrestricted free agents this offseason, some of their “cuts” were simply not having the ability to re-sign a number of their players. The Steelers simply didn’t have anywhere close to enough money to re-sign Bud Dupree at the price he received from the Tennessee Titans. While Tyson Alualu was a player many thought the Steelers would retain, he initially agreed to return to the Jacksonville Jaguars. But after the Steelers surprisingly were able to bring back JuJu Smith-Schuster, they also convinced Alualu to return since he was unable to travel to Jacksonville to sign his contract due to testing positive to COVID-19.
Ateelers also lost Mike Hilton and Matt Feiler, neither of which was shocking. Retaining cornerback Cam Sutton was a nice bonus, but Steelers fans did not realize it could lead to Steven Nelson becoming a cap casualty.
The Steelers have done some limited signings from outside of the organization with offensive lineman Joe Haeg, special teams ace and safety/linebacker Miles Killebrew, and running back Kelan Ballage. None of them were flashy signings, but the Steelers did add some players who could help cover some areas of need.
The absolute biggest jump to the Steelers salary cap situation was the return of Ben Roethlisberger at a discounted rate. With Roethlisberger taking a $5 million pay cut, he was able to save the Steelers about $15 million against the salary cap by adding void years to his contract.
Speaking of void years, once the Steelers open Pandora’s box by using them for the first time with Roethlisberger‘s contract, they have now become a useful tool this offseason. Cam Sutton, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Eric Ebron now have deals which include void years. By using them, the Steelers have pushed more money towards the 2022 salary cap, but at the moment they have some future money to spare.
The Steelers did restructure the contracts of Cameron Heyward and Derek Watt in order to save some money as well. As of yet, the Steelers have not restructured Stephon Tuitt and Chris Boswell. But they’ll be more on that later.
So after all these moves, the Steelers currently have enough money under the salary cap for even the things they will need come Week 1. The only question is if the Steelers will make some more moves and free up some cash in other places or if they’ll just ride with the players they gain in the NFL draft heading in the training camp.
One thing which is very interesting to note is that other than Ben Roethlisberger, every contract the Steelers reworked in some way this offseason was with a player who was signed under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. I’ve mentioned it a number of times, and there are still people on social media who think that this isn’t actually a thing, but they would be completely wrong. It’s going to take some different movement of the numbers for the Steelers to either extend a player, or restructure anyone’s contract from the old CBA.
The prime example is Stephon Tuitt. I outlined almost two months ago exactly why to his contract had not been restructured because of the addition of a 17th game.
Now that the NFL knows the 17th game is going to happen, the Steelers know what they need to do in order to pull off these contracts. It just might not be desirable. If Tuitt were to restructure down to the league minimum for the season, it would cost him over half a million dollars in lost salary which wouldn’t be paid by the Steelers and would not count towards the salary cap. With restructures generally giving players the same amount of salary, the Steelers would have to either expect Tuitt to take the pay cut, or they would have to give him a higher signing bonus then what he would have been owed by the team on a normal restructure. The reason this is a problem is because that new money would now count against the salary cap when under his current structure it would not.
If this sounds confusing, I highly encourage you to read the above referenced article for a better understanding.
The Steelers have been smart holding off on these moves where they would not get the maximum salary cap savings due to provisions from being under the old CBA. It’s another great way they have managed the salary cap this offseason. While the Steelers could use the money, why cost yourself more towards the cap by restructuring these players when you don’t have the need to do it yet? If something else presents itself and the Steelers need the cap space, then make the deal. But there’s no need to kick the can down the road, especially if they can gets a little bigger with these types of deals, until it is absolutely necessary.
From a cap-crunching standpoint, I feel the Steelers have done a real nice job this offseason. Would it have been nice to save more money in order to make a little bit of a splash in free agency? Absolutely. But with it being such an unprecedented situation for many teams around the NFL, I don’t blame the Steelers for not doing so. Hopefully the moves they have made, along with the upcoming 2021 NFL draft, will give the Steelers enough on their roster to be competitive each week of the NFL season.