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Breaking down the Ryan Shazier contract situation, and the Steelers’ options

Everyone is hoping and praying for the best with Ryan Shazier, but what options does the team have with his current contract?

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

This BTSC Fanpost from a week ago led to a long discussion that deserves to be summarized in a proper article. I encourage you to read the Comments yourself. This is meant as more of a summary to give the analysis front page attention.

The Issue

Pittsburgh exercised Ryan Shazier’s 5th Year Option. In most cases that means the team has seen enough to want an extra year of time to negotiate an extension, while maintaining the opportunity to drop the player if his demands or performance become unacceptable. Ryan Shazier’s price tag for the 5th Year option was $8.7 Million with a corresponding $8.7 Million cap hit for 2018. At the same time, no one thought it would end up there. Everyone knew the team loved him and was going to negotiate a long term extension (5 years?) that would reduce the cap hit while giving both sides a sense of security. All perfectly normal. We also know by now that Ryan Shazier wasn’t going to foul up, but if he somehow did get trapped in a giant sex- or drug scandal, the team could cut him. Again, perfectly normal.

But — the big but — all that changed with his injury. The CBA makes it impossible to cut a 5th Year Option player because of injury; or more precisely, it says the salary is fully guaranteed. Thus the Steelers have no choice. They must pay Ryan Shazier his $8.7 Million, and they must absorb the corresponding cap hit.

Is there any way to spread that cap hit out into future years? If not, how is the team going to pay for both (a) what Leveon Bell deserves [“deserves”, not “asks”], and (b) the cost of a free agent to cover Shazier’s position in 2018?

The normal answer would be an extension. Poster Big Al W suggested the following:

Signing bonus: 8 million

Year one salary: 1 million (guaranteed)

Year two salary: 10 million (not guaranteed)

Year three salary: 10 million (not guaranteed)

Year four salary: 11 million (not guaranteed)

... If he doesn’t play again, [Pittsburgh would] get hit with three million in cap this year (2 million in allocated bonus and 1 million in salary), and could cut him post-June 1 next year and take the remaining six million of the bonus cap hit spread over 2019 and 2020 ($2 million in 2019 and the remaining $4 million in 2020). It wouldn’t eliminate the problem, but it would spread it out and honor our cash commitment this year.

Shazier would probably do this in a heartbeat because it nets him $9 Million in 2018 rather than $8.7 Million, and ensures him a place on the team if he makes his way back. No issue there. The Steelers would love it too, because it buys $5.7 Million of immediate cap relief for a paltry $300K, while maintaining a no-obligations grip on Shazier’s career if he manages to heal. Heck, the team would love to make it a 7 year deal if they could!

But would the NFL allow such a thing? We bounced that around a LOT and ended up with a very clear answer: Such a contract would be fine if Shazier has any realistic chance of playing again, but would be forbidden if there is no realistic chance. Two examples will make this clear:

EXAMPLE #1: Assume Shazier had suffered a terrible broken bone that was certain to keep him out for all of 2018, but with little threat to 2019 and beyond. An extension would be entirely normal and expected under those facts. The player might even argue for better terms.

EXAMPLE #2: Assume Shazier had lost a leg in some car crash. Chance of returning to the NFL: zero point zero zero. In this case we'd have a transparent attempt to manipulate the cap, and the Steelers would be [quite properly] penalized by the league.

So where does the present situation fall on that spectrum? Answer: We don’t know, and normal human decency means we shouldn’t be told. But the cap- and career realities of the situation are so important there is no chance it isn’t being considered by all involved. Zero point zero zero. Thus our best insight into Ryan Shazier’s true prognosis is likely to come from how we see his contract treated over the next few months. If there is any realistic chance that he will return to the field (which the NFL will no doubt confirm), both Shazier and the Steelers would benefit from an extension along the lines described above. If the only hope lies in hope, prayer, and blind wanting, Pittsburgh’s 2018 salary cap will have to absorb $8.7 Million of dead money.

That’s how it works. Go back and read the Fanpost if you want to see the twists and turns that got us there.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Please do not treat this article as an invitation for idle speculation about the “real medical situation.” No competent physician would venture a professional opinion without access to the medical records, and probably not in the absence of a direct examination and interview with the patient. Do you have both the expertise and the data needed to provide that opinion? If so, both HIPAA and basic ethical rules prevent you from sharing it, and no one here wants you to sacrifice your career and your honor for our sake! If not, what makes you sure enough about the truth to take up our air space?

Sorry if that sounds harsh but many of us find those discussions traumatic and unpleasant. I’ve written this article to explain how the Shazier situation plays out from a salary cap point of view. Nothing more.]