As the 2023 NFL offseason rolls through the free agency period, The Steelers salary cap situation is constantly evolving. While I get numerous questions about where the Steelers stand with the salary cap, another question is, “how much are the Steelers going to need later?”
Now that the NFL has awarded the compensatory draft picks for 2023 and all the draft slots are known, it’s much easier to estimate how much money that Pittsburgh Steelers will need for various expenses between now and Week 1 of the 2023 NFL season.
Without further ado, here are the expenses the Steelers will need to eventually account for during the 2023 NFL season.
2023 Draft Class: $3.4 million
It’s possible you could have heard the $9.6 million salary total floated around for what it will cost to Steelers for the 2023 draft class. While that number is correct, that’s the total salary for each player the first season without taking into account roster displacement.
It should be noted before we go any farther that these amounts are based on the Steelers making their current slated selections. Any trading of draft picks, either up, back, or in addition, could change the number slightly depending on at what point the Steelers make the move.
In the Steelers current salary cap situation, only their top five draft picks will land in the top 51 of salaries when they come on the books. What this means is that they won’t affect the salary cap as there are too many other players with a higher salary ahead of them. Although there are three lower salaries to bump first, I have a feeling the Steelers will sign at least three players before the draft and therefore the salaries the draft class will be displacing are at $940k. This was the value used in roster displacement to come up with this value.
I do want to admit that in some of the comments here at BTSC I have been estimating the Steelers cap hit for the draft class to be about $2.5 million. So why does it come in higher? It was a simple mistake on my part as I scrolled too low on the chart and missed the 32nd overall pick at the beginning of the second round which the Steelers acquired via trade. This is why the draft class is counting higher than originally expected, but having an additional high draft pick is not something to complain about.
While some could make the argument that these players will count if they make the 53-man roster, they’ll do it at the expense of a player who has a higher salary than they do. If that’s the case, the Steelers actually gain a few dollars in their salary cap space. If their lower-round draft picks don’t make the roster, there will be a small dead money hit in the other direction. In all, these numbers are likely to be insignificant once combined together.
52nd and 53rd Salary: $1.7 million
This number has to be an estimate because there’s no way to know what the next two salaries will be that make the roster for the Steelers in 2023. For me to come up with this number, I had one of them be the Steelers first seventh-round draft pick and the other as a player who I believe will make the roster who is currently outside the top 51 salaries (Jaylen Warren). If the Steelers have both of their seventh-round draft picks make the roster, or another player with a lower salary, this number could go down. I decided to play it a little safe and make sure that there was plenty for the position and anything left over just adds a little bit to the final category below.
2023 Practice Squad: $4.38 million max ($3.5 million min)
Paying for the Steelers 2023 practice squad as where things get very tricky. The way the rules are set up for a 16-man practice squad, the Steelers can have six veteran players on the practice squad at any given time. For this season, there is a $16,100 minimum for veteran players per week with a $20,600 maximum for these players per week. As for the non-veteran players, their practice squad salary is $12,000 per week.
Knowing these numbers, there is a definite range in which the Steelers will have to spend on their 2023 practice squad. If the Steelers have no veteran players all season, which is highly unlikely, the minimum amount is $3.456 million. If the Steelers have six veteran players and pay all six of them the maximum amount on the practice squad, they will need $4.3848 million. If the Steelers have six veterans all season and only spend the minimum amount of their contracts, it would come to $3.9 million. With the final number likely falling somewhere in the middle, it won’t be known until the Steelers have the practice squad set.
As we all know, the players on the practice squad change constantly. Therefore, I am going to assume the highest possible amount and anything that the Steelers don’t use gets pushed into extra in the final category.
This category could have several different names but I went with “carryover” in order to combine the two main functions. The other name this category could have is “in-season expenses.” If the Steelers do not use all this money for expenses during the season, this would be “rollover” money into the 2024 salary cap. Since those are two separate things, I went with a name which didn’t make it seem explicitly one thing.
When a player goes on the Reserve/Injured List, the Steelers will need to sign another player to replace them. This is where that money comes from. Any kind of deal the Steelers need to make to add a player to their roster during the season has to come from the salary cap space they have. Of course, if the Steelers release a player any savings would help build up this category as well. In all, $7 million is a good starting point for the Steelers to be able to conduct business throughout the season. This number can obviously increase based money not being fully used in other places.
In the past I used to use $5 million as the amount the Steelers hoped to take into the season but have had to increase the number for several reasons. If the Steelers elevate players from the practice squad, they must receive a full game check. Taking this into account, along with significant increases in league-minimum salaries of players who could be added to the roster if another player is injured, the Steelers will likely want to carry an additional $2 million, increasing what I had before up to the $7 million.
Total: $16.5 million
While some fans might be surprised at this total when they first see it, remember this is the number that comes out on the high end of things. An argument could be made that the Steelers want more than $7 million in carryover, but they may not spend all of the other $9.5 million for the other things so that money will be there. If a player with a decent salary does not make the 53-man roster, someone like a Kendrick Green, the cap savings from these cuts could add up. It’s also unlikely the Steelers will keep six veteran players at the maximum salary every week of the NFL season. But since these could be an expense, it’s best to think that the money will be needed.
So should Steelers be setting aside more than $16.5 million on the salary cap as they do business through free agency?
No. That would be a horrible the business decision.
The earliest the Steelers would need any of this salary cap space would be May if they sign their draft picks quickly after the 2023 NFL draft. So more than $13 million of this amount is not needed until September.
I’m not saying the Steelers shouldn’t be mindful that they will need this money, but if they know they are going to be able to find it based on dealings they will have at a later time, there’s no reason to hold it back now. It would mean not using their resources to the best of their ability.
To put this philosophy in practical terms, I’ll use the same analogy as l did last year. Imagine there is a farmer who needs to buy corn in August, sells apples in October, and buys hay in November. While he could hold back all his money for hay and skimp on buying corn, wouldn’t it make more sense to buy the corn he really needs knowing that he will be able to sell his apples? If all the money is held back for hay while there is still the opportunity to buy corn, the selling of the apples only leaves money sitting around when the options to buy corn are not good.
The free agency period is going on right now. The best options the Steelers have to add to their roster are available at this time. If the Steelers know they will be able to create more salary cap space in a manner they are willing to do once everything is worked out, they might as well spend the cap space they have now rather than sit on their money and have a lot of it available later when there aren’t the quality players they could get.
But do the Steelers have the opportunity to create more salary cap space down the road? Absolutely. The Steelers could restructure T.J. Watt’s contract for 2023 which could cover about 75% of all they need. The Steelers have the option of giving Watt almost all of his 2023 salary as a signing bonus and could create up to $12.6 million. The Steelers could do this at any time, but they could also wait and figure out exactly how much they need and not push the full amount into the future like they did last season. The Steelers could also gain almost $17 million by restructuring Diontae Johnson, Chuks Okorafor, James Daniels, Mason Cole, and Chris Boswell. That’s not even touching the $7 million in a Cam Heyward restructure as it would push his 2024 cap hit to almost $30 million.
As you can see, the Steelers still have options when it comes to free agency and utilizing their 2023 salary cap space. The biggest thing now is having the knowledge of what expenses they will need in the future.