The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: Eric Ebron will only complete the first year of his two-year contract.
Explanation: The Steelers do not have the best track record in recent years of keeping their more high-priced free agents, with players like Ladarius Green (another injury-plagued tight end), Jon Bostic, Morgan Burnett, and Mark Barron all signing significant multi-year deals with the team and being released after the first season. Ebron’s two-year contract is a bit backloaded into a year with likely a reduced or flat cap, and has an injury history and spotty production of his own.
Couple the track record of both the team’s free agent choices and the player himself with the fact that the Steelers are already somewhat significantly over the 2021 salary cap floor and you have a recipe for yet another offseason in which the team is going to have to make cost-saving maneuvers.
Ebron will count $6 million in the form of base salary and roster bonus against the 2021 salary cap, in addition to $2.5 million in prorated signing bonus, which of course they can’t get back. But they could save that $6 million, minus displacement, by releasing him next year.
And while he hasn’t ever necessarily been bad, he is a player who only has one year of significantly above-the-line production. He also has a history with injuries. Even if he makes it through 16 games this year with moderate production, with the specter of a salary cap shortfall, he’s not safe.
If the Steelers are going to release a tight end after this season, it may be more realistic to suspect that it’s Vance McDonald, who has a $5.2 million base salary next year. They could save more by cutting Ebron, but he should prove to be the better of the two this season, and also the healthier.
Also consider the fact that Ebron is only 27 years old. If he has a productive season, then the Steelers could consider giving him a contract extension that could lower his cap hit in 2021, including rolling his $500,000 roster bonus into a signing bonus. If they view him as potentially their top tight end for the next five-plus years, they’re not going to let him go just because of a salary cap shortfall that they can make up through other means. You need a top tight end, and you pay your top tight end.