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Why the Steelers have been using void years rather than restructuring more contracts

Even the two bigger contracts the Steelers signed this summer included void years to reduce their 2021 salary cap hit.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

After getting reports of the one-year deals the Steelers signed with Trai Turner in June and Melvin Ingram in July, it was later discovered both contracts have void years with them in order to reduce the salary cap it for the 2021 NFL season. This per Mark Kaboly of The Athletic.

In my most recent salary cap update article, I adjusted for the Steelers using void years for Melvin Ingram. By doing so, the Steelers saved $2.34 million off of this year’s salary cap which will be applied, most likely, all to next year. Apparently Trai Turner’s deal also has void years included. The exact number of years has yet to be reported, but when it is another salary cap update will be forthcoming.

As a reminder, void years are placed on the end of a player’s contract in which they do not have a base salary and are not tied to the team. If a player has two void years at the end of their contract, it means they are set to be a free agent during that first void year. If that becomes the case, the money from all the remaining void years will count that next season towards the team’s salary cap.

For now, I’m going to assume Turner’s contract has four avoid years with it just like Ingram‘s. If so, the Steelers are saving another $1.54 million for the season. If you’re keeping track, that makes $3.88 million saved just with the last two contracts of players the Steelers have brought in this summer to bolster their roster for 2021.

What is interesting is the Steelers have opted to go with this method of saving money at this time of the year. In 2020, the Steelers saved as much salary cap space as they could by restructuring every possible contract. As another reminder, a contract restructure is basically taking as much of a player’s base salary as they can (usually reducing it to the league minimum) and converting it into a signing bonus which gets prorated out over the remaining years of the players contract. So if a player only has two years left on their deal and $4 million gets converted into a signing bonus, $2 million get pushed out into the next year and that is how much the team saves by doing the restructure. Remember, they only save the money for this year as every penny will be accounted for at some point. That point is just in the future.

Another thing to remember is a typical restructure is pointless for a player with only one year left on their contract. The obvious reason for this is that a signing bonus can’t be spread into additional years (because there aren’t any) and would all count toward this season anyway. That is, unless void years are added to the contract. This is what the Steelers did with Eric Ebron as they converted $4.88 million into a roster bonus for 2021, the final year of his contract, and added four void years to his contract. This reduced Ebron’s salary cap number by $3.904 million for 2021, but that money is set to count towards the salary cap in 2022.

Both of these examples, restructures and void years, are what is meant by teams “kicking the can down the road.” The player gets paid the same amount of money, but based on how and when they are paid the team is able to account for it against the salary cap at different times.

As noted for 2020, the Steelers use contract restructures all the time in order to gain more salary cap space for a given season. The 2021 offseason is the first time the Steelers have used void years in contracts in order to save money. The Steelers have now used these years for the contracts of Ben Roethlisberger, Eric Ebron, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton, and now both Melvin Ingram and Trai Turner. Cam Sutton‘s contract is different than the other five as he signed a two-year deal with three void years added after 2022. So he is the only one of these players still under contract for next season.

As for the other five players, they are set to be free agents in 2022. Depending on each of their contracts, when the void years kicks in has to be specified. Typically, this date comes the week after the Super Bowl. If the player signs an extension with the team before this deadline, it is my understanding the void years will continue to be spread out over the new contract and won’t all come due the next season.

If the dates for these void years to kick in are the first week after the Super Bowl, it does not give the Steelers much time to sign any of these players in order to spread out the salary cap hit. It does not mean that the Steelers cannot sign these players later on, but the full dead money hit will already be in place.

So why have the Steelers chosen do use void years over the remaining restructures they could do this offseason? The Steelers had already restructured Cameron Heyward and Derek Watt in order to lower their salary cap hit for 2021, but the Steelers still have two players with multiple years remaining on their contract that they could restructure in Stephon Tuitt and Chris Boswell.

I outlined back in February while restructure for these two players would be difficult based on the fact their contracts were signed during the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement. Even though the NFL had not announced the 17th game at the time of the previous article, the fact that it was looming, and eventually happened, created a different situation.

To sum up the difficulty with a restructure for these players, the Steelers would actually have to pay more money and add more to the salary cap in order to do the restructure fairly in terms of the player. The only way around that would be for these players to take a loss in salary which they generally do not do during a restructure. This all comes down to the league compensating players with contracts under the old CBA for playing in a 17th game. This money is based off their base salary and does not count towards the salary cap. I explained this in another article back in February if you want a greater explanation.

As stated in the previous article, a player such a Stephon Tuitt would be due to pick up an extra paycheck of $530k for the extra game. If Tuitt reduces his base salary in a restructure, he will receive less than this, if anything at all. If his salary would be reduced to the league minimum, he would not receive any extra money as agreed upon in the last CBA.

A Stephon Tuitt restructure would save the Steelers less than $4 million on the salary cap for 2021. Ironically, the savings from a Tuitt restructure would be almost the same amount the Steelers just saved by adding void years to both Melvin Ingram’s and Trey Turner‘s contract.

Could it be the Steelers added void years to these two contracts when they did not have to in order to have the extra money they would have gained by restructuring Stephon Tuitt? If that was the case, they were just able to save the money without having to pay more out of pocket or add extra money to the salary cap.

This does not mean that the Steelers can’t restructure Tuitt and Boswell if they find that they still need the extra money. But by adding the void years to both Turner and Ingram when they had the room to sign both of them without having to do so, it has now created a situation in which the money that got pushed down the road is dollar-for-dollar and they don’t have to do the final two possible restructures.