Due to the expected financial impact the ongoing coronavirus virus will have on the NFL in 2020, we could see the league’s 2021 salary cap number come in as low as $175 million. Even if the number ultimately comes in higher than $175 million, the best case scenario might be that it stays flat and thus matches the 2020 number of $198.2 million. While we wait to see what the 2021 number winds up being, it’s easy at this point to project that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be one of a handful of teams that will be extremely cap challenged come March. In lieu of that observation, and with the Steelers having off on Thursday, it’s a perfect time to take a quick look ahead at the team’s current cap situation for 2021 by completely breaking down the 10 players with the highest currently scheduled cap charges and what might ultimately happen with each of them. This post will be fun to look back at come the end of March.
Ben Roethlisberger – 2021 Cap Charge: $41,250,000 – Unless Roethlisberger wants to retire or is forced to because of his surgically repaired elbow going south in 2020, he’s going to return in 2021. While Roethlisberger’s cap charge in 2021 is now set to be $41.25 million, only $19 million of it is actual earnings as the rest is previous bonus money proration. If Roethlisberger and the Steelers decide another extension is the right course of action following the 2020 season, the time to do that would be in late February or early March as the quarterback is due a $15 million roster bonus just after the start of the 2021 league year. An extension would result in Roethlisberger’s 2021 cap charge decreasing some and the most it could go down is $14.34 million and that’s only the case if he receives no new bonus money and does the Steelers a huge favor. Based on what Roethlisberger said at the start of training camp, an extension in February or March shouldn’t be a surprise and especially if he has a solid bounce-back season in 2020.
Joe Haden – 2021 Cap Charge: $15,575,000 – Haden is going to be an interesting subject come February. While he’s only scheduled to earn $7 million in 2021, his cap charge is more than double that amount due to his contract being restructured this offseason. At 31 years of age, Haden is no spring chicken so how he plays in 2020 will go a long way in determining what happens with him come the start of the new league year in March. Should Haden need to be cut next March, the Steelers would save $7 million in 2021 cap space. They could also decide to extend his contract and in doing so, a little bit of cap space could be created. The Steelers could also decide to just let Haden play out his final year in 2021. Once again, we’ll have a better idea about Haden’s potential future as the 2020 season progresses. His situation is way too hard to predict right now.
Stephon Tuitt – 2021 Cap Charge: $14,940,750 – Tuitt is now set to return from a 2019 pec injury and it’s imperative he remains healthy in 2020 and picks up where he left off at against the Los Angeles Chargers. Tuitt is under contract through the 2022 season and thus he would need to have a catastrophic 2020 season for the Steelers to part ways with him by the start of the 2021 league year in March. Besides, cutting Tuitt before the start of the 2021 season only creates $3,059,250 in cap space and this assumes the team doesn’t restructure his contract in the next three weeks to clear more 2020 cap space to have for in-season purposes. What ultimately could happen with Tuitt is that he gets restructured again in late February or March. Doing that would free up $4.005 million in 2021 salary cap space. With less than four weeks remaining in the 2020 offseason, it will be interesting to see if Tuitt’s contract is restructured yet again. Doing so, however, would cause his 2021 cap charge to grow even higher.
Maurkice Pouncey – 2021 Cap Charge: $14,475,000 – Pouncey had his contract restructured again this offseason and in doing so, his cap number for 2021 is nearly double his $8 million salary he’s scheduled to earn. 2021 is also scheduled to be Pouncey’s final contract year. If Roethlisberger gets extended next offseason, will he demand that Pouncey gets done as well? It’s certainly possible as the two seem to be tied together as their NFL careers wind down. A Pouncey extension in the spring, however, isn’t going to create all that much in 2021 salary cap space unless he were to do the Steelers a solid and not take any new bonus money. Assuming Pouncey remains healthy and productive in 2020, the wise move would likely be to just let him play out his contract in 2021 regardless of what Roethlisberger does or wants.
Steven Nelson – 2021 Cap Charge: $14,420,000 – Nelson is just 27 years of age and coming off a particularly good 2019 season. In short, with 2021 scheduled to be the final year of his current contract, he’ll likely be ripe for an extension at some point next offseason and likely sooner rather than later due to the team likely needing cap space to be created in March. An extension for Nelson next offseason, however, won’t clear an astronomical amount of 2021 salary cap space as $6.17 million of his $14.42 scheduled cap charge is previous bonus proration that stays locked in that year. Realistically, an extension for Nelson could create up to $3-$4 million in 2021 salary cap space. If Nelson were to sign an extension, however, it’s hard to envision Haden getting one as well. God forbid the Steelers needed to cut Nelson next March, the team would save $8.25 million cap space prior to roster displacement taking place. Nelson would need to play unbelievably bad in 2020 for that to happen or suffer a serious injury. Like the aforementioned Tuitt, the Steelers are pretty much locked into Nelson for at least the 2021 season.
David DeCastro – 2021 Cap Charge: $10,447,500 – With less than four weeks remaining until the start of the 2020 regular season, it’s a good bet that DeCastro will have his contract restructure because the need for in-season cap space does exist. A contract restructure for DeCastro in the next four weeks would result in his 2021 cap charge increasing another $3.85 million and thus over the $14 million mark. Ideally, DeCastro will be ripe for a contract extension next offseason at some point and maybe sooner rather than later due to the team needing cap space. He’ll be 31 years of age in January so one last extension for him seems very, very plausible at this point. An extension next offseason would inevitably lower his 2021 cap charge to some degree.
T.J. Watt – 2021 Cap Charge: $10,089,000 – Watt’s future is perhaps the easiest to predict on this list so far. For starters, the Steelers picked up his fifth-year option earlier this offseason and that now means he’s scheduled to earn a little more than $10 million in 2021. Assuming Watt stays healthy and productive in 2020, he’ll remain on pace to become the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player next offseason and maybe even hit the scales with a new money average of $30 million. Such a mega extension for Watt, however, isn’t likely to happen until after the Steelers report to training camp next July. When and if a mega extension is ultimately signed next summer, it might not result in any 2021 cap savings and there’s even a chance his $10.089 million number increases some.
Eric Ebron – 2021 Cap Charge: $8,500,000 – The Steelers signed Ebron to a two-year contract during the offseason and now the former first-round draft pick needs a great 2020 season to ensure he stays in 2021. Ebron is scheduled to earn $6 million in 2021 with $500,000 of that coming in the form of a March roster bonus. If cut prior to that roster bonus being paid, the Steelers would save $6 million in 2021 salary cap space and that’s a lot based on an early outlook. The Steelers currently have two tight ends under contract for 2021 set to count well over $7 million each against the cap and so at least one of the two is likely to be jettisoned. It could even wind up being both of them. In short, Ebron needs to earn his keep and more in 2020. How he plays this season will make it much easier to determine his 2021 future come February.
Vance McDonald – 2021 Cap Charge: $7,927,500 – McDonald is likely to be a huge pink elephant in the Steelers salary cap room come late February. While he did rework his contract this offseason, it’s hard to imagine the team keeping both he and Ebron in 2021 due to cap limitations. There’s even a chance that both McDonald and Ebron wind up being jettisoned by late March. McDonald’s best chance at staying on the roster past the beginning of March would likely include him signing a modest extension of some sorts that would result in his 2021 cap charge lowering some. Getting to that point, however, would likely require McDonald having a career season in 2020 and staying fully healthy in the process. Even those two things happening will not guarantee that McDonald is still on the roster come the start of the 2021 league year in March.
Vince Williams – 2021 Cap Charge: $7,031,668 – No matter how you try to slice things, it’s almost guaranteed that 2020 will be Williams’ final season with the Steelers. He’s currently scheduled to earn a base salary of $4 million in 2021 and while not a huge number in the grand scheme of things, it will likely be too rich for the Steelers due to cap limitations. Williams, outside of him taking a huge reduction in salary in late February, is almost certain to be a cap causality by the middle of March as the team will need that $4 million in pre roster displacement cap space to use elsewhere. Would Williams be interested in playing for $1.075 million in 2021? That might be the decision he’ll need to make.
Summary: It’s worth starting this summary by noting that Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward could ultimately wind up on this top 10 list in the next three and a half weeks if he signs a contract extension prior to the start of the 2020 regular season. Should Heyward ultimately sign an extension, he’ll instantly become a March restructure candidate. It’s also worth reminding everyone what i wrote above and that’s that we could see DeCastro or Tuitt, or both have their contracts restructured before the start of the 2020 regular season. Such restructures would result in their currently scheduled 2021 cap charges increasing. The 10 players listed in this post have 2021 cap charges that total $144,656,418, or 82.66% of a cap number of $175 million. Throw in an estimated initial 2021 cap charge for Heyward if he signs an extension and the percentage jumps to nearly 93. It should be obvious that not all 10 players listed above will still be on the Steelers roster come the end of March. In fact, as many as four of them could ultimately be jettisoned.
Final Thoughts: We’re going to be speculating about what the NFL’s 2021 salary cap number will be for a long time and probably right up until the official number is finally released in late February or early March. Not having a firm grasp on what the final number will come in at, makes it tough to speculate some things with the 2021 Steelers this far out and with the country still in a pandemic state. Right after the Steelers establish their 2020 53-man roster, I will post a full breakdown of the Steelers 2021 salary cap situation based on the NFL’s number coming in at the $175 million floor. In the meantime, however, this look ahead at their 10 highest scheduled cap charges should give all a good sense of the challenges the team will face beginning in March.