Truth be told, the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been in a bind such as they are now in about a decade—the last time the NFL was operating under the rules stipulated by the final year of a Collective Bargaining Agreement, which hinders certain measures of creating cap space in any given season.
Granted, things would be much easier if they didn’t have to place the franchise tag on fifth-year outside linebacker Bud Dupree, but it’s generally a good problem to have when you have to pay a player because he’s worth it. Though it hasn’t actually happened yet, they have already essentially had to choose between paying Dupree or Javon Hargrave.
But with the likely franchise tag coming down, and the limited avenues the team has to create cap space, building the roster through other means is going to be rather tough, and strained. Even releasing all of Ramon Foster, Anthony Chickillo, Mark Barron, and Vance McDonald creates slightly less than $18 million in cap space, for perspective, and that is after a roster displacement total of $2,040,000.
This is a problem when you have at least three players who are restricted free agents that you would like to retain on a tender, with two of them possibly requiring a second-round tender because they are valuable players who had previously gone undrafted.
While they should be able to get away with giving Zach Banner an original-round tender as a former fourth-round pick who has never started a game, assuming they do give him a tender, neither Mike Hilton nor Matt Feiler would likely be as safe, as former college free agents who are starters.
Feiler, I think, is too important not to tender, and to do so at the second-round level, given both his role on the team and the possible, even likely losses of Foster and B.J. Finney, the latter an unrestricted free agent who has made 12 starts over the past four seasons.
Even Bob Labriola, however, admits that it may be difficult for the Steelers to fit a restricted free agent tender—especially a second-round tender worth over $3 million—on Hilton, in spite of the fact that he is a significant player on the defense.
It won’t be too much longer until we know—and if the new CBA proposal is approved, it will be a lot easier to do—but we will have to watch to see how this situation plays out. Largely because of Dupree’s price tag, the Steelers are guaranteed to take some significant hits to their depth, and even starting lineup. Will Hilton be among those players hit?
Of course, failure to give a restricted free agent a tender does not guarantee you will lose them. It just means that they become unrestricted free agents able to sign with anyone. The Steelers can try to re-sign him while bidding with 31 other teams; however, if they can’t afford to tender him, they likely would not be able to afford him at market value either.