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The Steelers still have options to reduce their salary cap for 2021, but they aren’t great

There are ways the Steelers can find some extra room under the 2021 salary cap if they must, but had they been desirable choices they may have already pulled the trigger.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers only have one remaining draft choice to get under contract for the 2021 season. Once this is done, their full 90 players will be under contract and their status when it comes to the salary cap can be known. The signing of Kendrick Green should only add about $50k to the Steelers cap number. As was reported last week, the Steelers are coming in with their current cap space of about $7.2 million.

While it seems to be really good news that the Steelers have some room under the salary cap, it’s barely enough to get them through the 2021 season as is if they chose to try to skim through with their regular amount of carryover. The Steelers will need at least $2 million to sign the 12 players to their 2021 practice squad as well as at least $1.32 million with a must account for the 52nd and 53rd player on the roster. These are amounts that will come up in September, but they’re going to have to have room for them when they need them.

With $3.32 million already accounted for, this puts the Steelers under $4 million to have for during the season costs and carryover. Trying to have at least $5 million in this category in a typical season, it’s tough to say if the Steelers would try to slide through with such a small amount.

Of course there will be small tweaks up and down in this number as some higher salaries may not make the team and not all 90 players participating in every day of offseason workouts. But there will also be small amounts in the negative range with dead money from players who were cut. In all, these two things should pretty much cancel out.

So if the Steelers were really in the market to spend more money towards another player, where are they going to get it from? Even if the Steelers want to get to that $5 million going into the season, they have got to make an adjustment somewhere. Granted the Steelers have options to help with their 2021 salary cap, but when looking at what they are it makes sense why they are holding off as long as possible to see if it’s something they need to do.

Here are some of the options the Steelers have in order to reduce their 2021 salary cap, and why it might be something they are trying to avoid.


Extensions

First of all, not every player for the Steelers would benefit by having an extension of their contract. The Steelers don’t offer extensions for players unless they are going into the last year the deal with the exception of quarterbacks. Also, a player has to have a contract whose cap number is big enough to help them out if they’re going to extend one of their older players. When it comes to extending a younger player, it may not help them in reducing costs in regards to the salary cap.

In looking at the Steelers top six salary cap hits for 2021 (Devin Bush is the seventh on the list on his rookie deal, so it’s a good cut off point), there are only two players who would fall under the category of having an extension. Ben Roethlisberger has already done his contract this offseason, while Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward have multiple years left on their deals. T.J. Watt has the fifth-highest cap number for 2021 but he will be a category himself later on. The only two players remaining to extend are Joe Haden and David DeCastro.

So why would neither of these players be a great option? It’s simply because of their age. Joe Haden is 32 and David DeCastro is 31. For the Steelers to truly save some money, they would need to lock up these players for multiple years. Of course there’s always the newly discovered trick of adding void years to contracts which the Steelers just started this offseason, but I’m not sure how much they want to get into this business if they don’t have to.

While I would still be a fan of extending either of these players for another couple of seasons, it all depends on the price of future years. If simply taking their current base salary for 2021 and turning it into a signing bonus, the Steelers could save approximately $5 million for David DeCastro and $4 million for Joe Haden if they were to extend each of them for another two seasons. Adding more years would add even more savings.

This is actually the Steelers best option to save some money under the salary cap for 2021, even though it means they would be paying a 34-year-old cornerback or a 33-year-old guard in 2023. Ultimately it would be the money in 2022 and beyond which would be the biggest question.


Restructures

If looking at doing a restructure without adding any void years to a players contract, there are only two candidates left for the Steelers for 2021. I’ve talked about these two players at length because there is a big snag in restructuring either Stephon Tuitt or Chris Boswell. Ultimately, it comes down to having to pay more money to do a restructure which is usually not the case.

For those who don’t like the whole notion of a restructure and “kicking the can down the road,” at least when it gets kicked it’s a dollar-for-dollar amount that gets pushed into the future. This would not be the case for Tuitt and Boswell unless they agreed to a pay cut. In this instance, the can would actually getting bigger by being kicked.

The whole issue comes down to the NFL adding a 17th game in 2021 and both Tuitt and Boswell’s contracts falling under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement. All contracts that are more than the league minimum that was signed before the new CBA was put in place will have an extra 1/17th of their salary paid for out of the Performance Based Pool, then the Rookie Redistribution fund, and then New Player Benefits as listed in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

What’s nice about this extra payment is it does not cost the team any extra money nor does it count against the salary cap. If using Stephon Tuitt as an example, he is set to make an extra $529k in 2021 based on his $9 million base salary for the season. If he were to restructure his contract down to the league minimum salary as is customary during a restructure, he would miss out on this amount.

The only way it would be wise for Tuitt to restructure would be for the Steelers to agree to pay him the extra nearly $530k he would be set to lose. But by doing so, the Steelers would be adding an extra $265k each season to the salary cap that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Granted this number only drops Tuitt’s savings from $3.96 million to $3.7 million, it’s still having to pay “money for nothing” as the league is currently preparing to foot the bill.

The other option in Steelers have would be to not drop Tuitt’s base salary to the league minimum to where he would still get paid some for the additional game. If the Steelers converted $7 million of Tuitt’s $9 million base salary into a signing bonus, he would still receive extra pay from the league of almost $118k. The Steelers would still have to pay over $400k in the amount that he lost, but it wouldn’t be the full amount otherwise. This example could still save the Steelers almost $3.3 million against the salary cap in 2021 but would add $200k in each of the next two years while wouldn’t have been there.

Without even diving into the numbers with Chris Boswell which are much smaller, it would make sense for the Steelers to use this restructure only if they know exactly how much they need in order to work the best.


A New Contract

One other move the Steelers can do that could possibly save some money for the 2021 salary cap would be signing T.J. Watt to a long-term deal. In doing so, Watt’s $10.089 fifth-year option would disappear as part of a brand new contract. While locking T.J. Watt in long-term is a great plan for the Steelers, doing it for the purpose of reducing the 2021 salary cap is not overly beneficial.

If Watt were to get a new deal, I’m going to assume that it’s going to be for at least five years. Also, I would assume that his base salary for the first year would be the $990k for a player with his experience. With this in mind, the Steelers could not give Watt any more than a $45 million signing bonus to have him count less on the 2021 salary cap than he already does. Exactly what Watt will get in a signing bonus when he gets his new deal is a debatable topic, but I’m just giving the numbers from a 2021 salary cap standpoint.

For the Steelers to save money in 2021, watch signing bonus would have to be less than the $45 million. How much less? For every $5 million his signing bonus is below $45 million, it would save $1 million against the 2021 salary cap. So if the Steelers gave Watt a $25 million signing bonus with his new deal, it would save the Steelers $4 million toward this year‘s salary cap. But does anyone seriously see T.J. Watt jumping in celebration for a $25 million signing bonus? I don’t.


Cutting Another Veteran Player

I have to put this on here just because it is a possibility. The Steelers could cut a veteran player starting today as it is now the post-June 1 deadline, but there are very limited options as to who would actually save the Steelers money by releasing them. In fact, the only players who would save the Steelers $2 million or more before roster displacement (which would make it even less savings) are Joe Haden ($7 million), Stephon Tuitt ($9 million), David DeCastro ($8.75 million), Chris Boswell ($3.09 million), and Chukwuma Okorafor ($2.183 million). That’s it. It would be a very un-Steelers-like move to make a cut at this time of the offseason strictly for the salary cap. The more likely move would be if the player did not make the team come August 31.


So there are the Steelers options right now for gaining more space under the 2021 salary cap. They aren’t great, but there are possibilities. It is unlike some years where the Steelers basically have no more options as they had burned through them all prior to June 1. But since these options aren’t overly desirable, waiting until they absolutely would have to do them makes the most sense.