Building the Roster or Why our Cap Situation is Really Pretty Good

I wrote this a couple of days ago in response to a comment about our cap situation and how we can't afford high priced free agents without sacrificing re-signing Cam Sutton. And that's just not true so I wanted to conduct an exercise in building a roster for 2023 that shows what we can do, and how we can be major players in free agency if we want to be. Now, we're all used to the bargain basement hunting we could afford the last decade or more but it doesn't have to be that way this year. Here's our current projected cap status over the next 4 seasons.


So the common thought is that we're in a lot of trouble with the cap this year. We actually have to clear space just to be compliant. So we're going to struggle to even sign our own guys let alone sign some upper mid to high level free agents right? Well no. One reason is because we can do this immediately

Cut William Jackson, Gunner Olszewski, Myles Jack and Akhello Witherspoon
(Note: Personally I would look to extend Jack a couple of years at around $5.5m a year, reduce his cap hit, keep him on board. But I'm going to cut him here as a somewhat extreme example of how you could improve the team even with our current cap situation)

Here's where that leaves us


So that's a bunch of money without much of a loss to the team as a whole. But there's a bunch of stuff to be done before we get to unrestricted free agents.

Extend Mitch Trubisky. Probably not a popular move and might not be realistic. But it sounds like the Steelers are keen to have him around longer as backup and he'd be a high level backup. Those guys make $7m a year, which is exactly what we signed him for last year. I'd turn most of his 2023 salary to a signing bonus and offer him an extra 2 years at that $7m a year level. That brings his 2023 cap hit down to a shade over $6m

RFAs decisions. Steven Sims, James Pierre both tendered at Right of First Refusal Level, roughly $2.6m for 1 year. Hassenhauer offered 1 year vet min contract, same for Jeremy McNichols I guess? Some camp competition at least.

Now we're here


Now, the second reason our cap situation is actually quite good is those 2024 and 2025 numbers. The cap is set to rise a lot the next couple of years and our cap commitments are lower than recent seasons. Essentially, we have an absolute mountain of cap space coming up before we have to contemplate a long term deal for Kenny Pickett. And this is great for us because of the way the Steelers usually structure their contracts. The Steelers very rarely offer guarantees beyond the first year of the deal, off the top of my head I think they've done it for Big Ben, TJ and Minkah. I don't recall them ever doing it for an outside free agent. But what they do offer is a large signing bonus and a vet minimum salary in Year 1. And that's pretty universal, and also quite easily translatable as a structure based on a player's "Amount Per Year" ie the average value of a contract per year. That's a really common metric used to describe player's contract value. But it does not equate to their cap hit... unless they're on a one year deal.

Let's take a look at an example of a 3 year deals from last year here, James Daniels. A signing bonus roughly equal to the Amount Per Year (APY), and a vet minimum salary, or thereabouts in Year 1. The rest of the contract is divided up equally between the remaining years. In general this is the structure the Steelers follow the vast majority of the time. There will be some variations, mostly small. Sometimes part of that Year 2 amount is in a roster bonus, sometimes, there's a bit more in Year 2 than 3, sometimes a bit more in Year 3 than Year 2. But what you will see here is that James Daniels is an $8.833m per year player who was paid an $8.75m signing bonus. But check out his 2022 cap hit... only $4.166m


So, for this exercise I'm going to offer free agent contracts this way. I'm going to take the highest value of Over The Cap and Spotrac's per year valuations. That number is going to be the signing bonus. I'll add vet minimum salary. Subsequent year salaries will be at the per year amount as well. Because I want slightly easier maths...

So let's start with the free agents by signing our own.

Cam Sutton 3 years at $11.3m APY: 2023 Cap hit is $4.85m
Larry Ogunjobi 2 years at $5.1m APY: 2023 cap hit is $3.63m
Terrell Edmunds 3 years at $5.4m APY: 2023 cap hit is $2.88m
Damontae Kazee 2 years at $4.49m APY: 2023 cap hit is $3.325m
Robert Spillane 2 years at $2m APY: 2023 cap hit is $2.08m
Zach Gentry 2 years at $3m APY: 2023 cap hit is $2.58m
Miles Boykin 1 year vet min, 2023 cap hit is $1.08m
Benny Snell 1 year vet min, 2023 cap hit is $1.08m
Trenton Scott 1 year vet min, 2023 cap hit is $1.08m

That's going to leave us here


Space this year is starting to get a little tight but we basically have the band from last year back together and we haven't looked at any restructures yet. So let's go on a shopping spree.... and I'm not advocating for these players per se, just examples of what some pretty big APY contracts actually look like on the cap this year

Javon Hargrave 3 years at $20.1m APY: 2023 cap hit is $7.83m
Tremaine Edmunds 3 years at $11m APY: 2023 cap hit is $4.75m
Germaine Pratt 3 years at $10.6m APY: 2023 cap hit is $4.6m


Ok so we're over the cap now with that spending spree. But we still have some options here. We're going to need to generate about $12m to sign the draft class, a practice squad and have some in season money. Our rookie pool is $9.6m, I've calculated we will likely need $3.4m of cap space to sign the rookies though because of displacement. We will also need some extra for 2 extra players who count against the cap in season (the top 51 count in preseason, all 53 count in season) and the usual $5m+ we keep around for in season signings, and a couple of million for the practice squad. Cap space is often generated in cutdowns as UDFAs beat out more experienced and expensive players, but let's assume the worst. We're going to need to look at restructures worth about $12m here.

Here's a list of most of the restructurable players and how much cap space we get back in 2023 if we restructure.
Chris Boswell: $2.1m
James Daniels: $3.6m
Chuks Okorafor: $4.5m
Diontae Johnson: $4.7m
Minkah Fitzpatrick: $10m
Cameron Heyward: $7m
TJ Watt: $12.6m

So you can see just restructuring TJ Watt would get us where we need to be.


An extension for someone like Alex Highsmith you might need to clear some more by way of say, restructuring Minkah. Basically if they really like Pickett, we have a window before he's signed long term at a Superbowl if the rest of the team is off the charts good. 2024 doesn't look great in the above diagram, to be over by $4m with what would be about 35 players signed. But it's probable that we're staring at Cam's last season in Black & Gold. If he retires he clears $16m off the cap next season. Although it's a massive contract up there, I'd be very tempted to look at Hargrave or someone at his level on the DL because after this season we can look at them as being the next Cam. And we get one season of them together.

So this was long, and it's often extreme in examples but hopefully it shows you that our cap situation is not as poor as it's often painted to be based on the current numbers for 2023. Signing an expensive ILB does not mean we can't afford Cam Sutton. Signing Hargrave isn't cloud cuckoo land, at least not cap wise. We can do a lot this year by virtue of the way we structure contracts and the large amount of cap space we have coming up in 2024 and 2025.

With all this said, the other factor to consider if cash flow. The cap may not prevent us doing some, or even all of this, but liquid cash the Rooneys can pay out in the form of all these signing bonuses may be more of an issue. I obviously have no idea what their liquidity is like but to do everything above would require over $60m available pretty much immediately.

Notes: I had to dig into the wayback machine to get some of the Over The Cap valuations as they've dropped off for some players. Notably Cam Sutton. Back in February they had him at $11.1m APY, so I used that. Spotrac has him at a mere $7.6m. But Spotrac doesn't seem to have market valuations for lower tier free agents. If anyone makes it this far and has PFF access and wants to reply with their APY valuations on all the free agents I mentioned here, I'd update the figures to reflect any where PFF is higher. I chose the higher numbers rather than an average because I wanted a worst case scenario. Here's what I have, the table is $m/Year

Player OTC Spotrac
Cam Sutton 11.3 7.6
Terrell Edmunds 3.12 5.4
Damontae Kazee 4.49
Larry Ogunjobi 5.1 3.4
Robert Spillane 2
Zach Gentry 3
Javon Hargrave 12.4 20.1
Tremaine Edmunds 9.7 11
Germaine Pratt 8.75 10.6

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