The NFL and NFLPA cleared a few final hurdles on Friday and the agreement the two sides came to on several outstanding issues resulting from coronavirus fallout should now allow for training camps, and ultimately the 2020 regular season, to start on time. One of the several primary issues that needed resolving and bargaining on Friday was how the league will handle 2020 revenue losses, and perhaps more importantly, how those losses will impact the NFL salary cap the next several years.
According to reports, the NFL and NFLPA both agreed that no changes would be made to the 2020 salary cap. The league wanted to decrease this year’s cap number by $8 million but the NFLPA wanted no part of that. As for the impact that 2020 revenue losses will have on the 2021 salary cap and subsequent years, the two sides agreed that next year’s cap number cannot go lower than $175 million. It can, however, go higher if revenues come in better than expected. Additionally, should the need arise, the loss of any potential revenue above and beyond will be spread out over the next four years of the salary cap, through 2024.
So, what does all that mean?
For starters, we now know that the lowest the 2021 salary cap number can be is $175 million as that’s the floor. While I think odds are probably good that the final 2021 number might ultimately be closer to the 2020 amount of 198.2 million, at least the NFL and NFLPA both have a worse-case scenario number to work with and plan around.
How severely will the Pittsburgh Steelers be impacted should the 2021 salary cap number wind up being $175 million? The quick answer to such a question is that it would present a great challenge for the Steelers to work around and especially with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger now scheduled to have a 2021 salary cap charge of $41.25 million.
As things stand right now ahead of 2020 training camps getting underway, the Steelers already have almost $190.5 million committed against the 2021 salary cap with just 42 players under contract. Add in roughly another $6 million to that for nine players at minimum salaries to fill out a Rule of 51 number and the Steelers are essentially $21.5 million over a $175 million cap number in 2021 as we sit here on Friday. None of those numbers include signing bonuses for 2021 rookies, either.
The Steelers will likely have a few salary cap casualties by the time the start of the 2021 new league year gets underway in March and already leading the list of those candidates are tight end Vance McDonald, inside linebacker Vince Williams and guard/center Stefen Wisniewski. Cutting just those three players by the start of the 2021 league year would save the Steelers roughly $8.8 million in cap space after roster displacement takes place. A few other veterans under contract in 2021, cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Eric Ebron, will have their fates for next season decided by how both play in 2020.
Outside linebacker T.J. Watt is on the 2021 books for a $10.089 million cap charge. While the Steelers are likely to work out an ultra-lucrative contract extension with Watt at around this same time next year, such a deal isn’t likely to result in very much 2021 salary cap space being created.
If the Steelers ultimately get defensive lineman Cameron Heyward signed to a new lucrative contract extension in the next 50 days, he’ll likely need to be restructured in March to create 2021 salary cap space. Guard David DeCastro might be ripe for a contract extension next summer as well and such a transaction could free up a little bit more 2021 salary cap space.
Obviously, the Steelers could sign Roethlisberger to another contract extension next February to help with the salary cap, but even if they do, the max room that could be created is $14.34 million and that’s only via a faux four-year extension with the quarterback not taking any new money. Such a deal would essentially mean that Roethlisberger would retire after the 2021 season. In short, a more realistic extension that would allow for Roethlisberger to play through at least the 2023 season, would likely result in just $8-10 million or so in 2021 salary cap space being created.
Remember, Roethlisberger has a past bonus proration amount of $22.25 million on the books for 2021 and no matter what happens, that amount stays put in that year. He’s also owed $19 million in 2021 and that old money would need to be wrapped up in an extension along with a nice chunk of new money. Even if Roethlisberger were to be cut next March, the cap savings for such a move would only be $19 million. He’d really need to suck or have his arm fall off in 2020 for that to happen.
Even if the Steelers decided they needed to cut defensive end Stephon Tuitt next March, they would only realize a pre roster displacement cap savings of $3,059,250. In short, Tuitt would need to play poorly or get injured again in 2020 for such a move to take place.
Even if the 2021 salary cap number were to come in flat at $198.2 million, you can probably already forget about the team being able to re-sign players such as outside linebacker Bud Dupree, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner, tackle Alejandro Villanueva, guard Matt Feiler, cornerback Mike Hilton and cornerback Cameron Sutton, all of whom are currently scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in March. Even tackle Zach Banner might be too rich for the Steelers blood come next March.
A best-case scenario would probably be that 2021 salary cap stays flat or slightly increases. For that to happen, however, one would guess that the league would need to get some decent attendance in stadiums during the second half of the regular season. A flat cap of $198.2 million in 2021 would at least be a much better number for the Steelers to have to work around. It still wouldn’t be high enough to save a few jobs, but it also wouldn’t force the Steelers to rid themselves of a few more players who still might have another good year of contributions in them.
Moving forward in the next 50 days, it will be interesting to see the path the Steelers take with Heyward. If they don’t get him signed to a contract extension in the next seven weeks, there’s a particularly good chance that 2020 might be his final season in Pittsburgh. Personally, I still think they’ll get him extended prior to the start of the 2020 regular season and then turnaround in March and restructure his deal to free up some salary cap space.
After we get our answer on Heyward, we just sit and wait to see how the 2020 season works out and what impact it has on the 2021 salary cap number.