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Early Steelers 2021 Salary Cap Snapshot Preview

The Pittsburgh Steelers have now started their 2020 regular season and with that, it’s time to take a tiny peek ahead at the team’s 2021 salary cap situation.

Obviously, speculating about what the 2021 league-wide NFL salary cap number will ultimately be is incredibly tough right now due to the unknown financial impact the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will have. All we know right now is that the NFL and NFLPA have agreed that the lowest the 2021 salary cap number can be is $175 million. In case you weren’t already aware, the 2020 salary cap number is $198.2 million, so the NFL is primed for a huge decrease in a worst-case scenario.

Until we get a better feel for what the 2021 salary cap number will be, we have no choice but to work off the assumption that it will come in at the agreed to floor of $175 million.

Heading into Week 2 of the 2020 season, the Steelers had 34 players under contract for 2021 season with cap charges seemingly totaling $202,628,760. At that same focal point, the team is projected to have $175,459 in dead money on their 2021 books as well. In total, that’s $202,805,052 on the books for the 2021 Steelers and they’re 17 players short from having a Rule of 51 number.

When you add in another 17 minimum salaries to the running 2021 total, that balloons the Steelers lowest possible Rule of 51 number to a speculated amount of $214,025,052, which would be $39,025,052 over a floor 2021 cap number of $175 million.

It’s worth noting at this point that the Steelers entered the 2020 season an estimated $10,728,912 under the cap. They will undoubtedly roll over all unused 2020 salary cap space to 2021, so for now, that working amount can be used as a credit moving forward. Applying that credit, however, still puts the team at $28,296,140 over a 2021 cap number of $175 million and that’s a lot of ground to make up between now and he start of the new league year in March.

Before we move forward, it’s important to remember that the team will still need to accommodate 2021 draft pick bonuses in the summer of 2021 as well as a full practice squad, offseason workout bonus charge and eventually a 52nd player and a 53rd player. The team will also likely want to enter the 2021 season with at least $8 million in available salary cap space. We won’t worry about those post new year charges right now, but they must be accounted for at some point. The purpose of this exercise is to show how the team will be incredibly challenged to get under a $175 million salary cap number by the start of the league year in March.

Obviously, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his $41,250,000 2021 cap charge really sticks out. 2021, however, is currently set to be Roethlisberger’s final year of his contract so unless some sort of an extension is done, or he decides to give back some of the $19 million he’s scheduled to earn next season, his cap number won’t move. I recently wrote about the situation the Steelers will have with Roethlisberger next February or early March and in that post, I detailed multiple and realistic options and outcomes. I summarized in that post that a realistic 2021 Roethlisberger cap charge drop of somewhere between $4 and $8.5 million.

What else can the Steelers do to clear 2020 cap space by the middle of March?

While the Steelers usually love to do contract restructures to manipulate cap amounts in a single year, they won’t have many opportunities to do so in 2021. Currently, the only legitimate candidates for full amount spring contract restructures and their savings are Cameron Heyward ($7,068,750), Stephon Tuitt ($4,005,000), Chris Boswell ($1,047,500), and Derek Watt ($880,000). Doing full restructures on those four players would clear $13,001,250 in 2021 salary cap space, however.

So, assuming the Steelers were able to lower Roethlisberger’s 2021 number down by $5 million via some sort of extension and then restructure the contracts of the four players I just itemized, the end result would roughly $18 million in cap space being cleared. Even so, roughly another $10 million would still need to be cleared after all of that just to get the Steelers cap compliant to a $175 million by the start of the new league year in March.

What else can the Steelers do to clear 2020 cap space by the middle of March?

The Steelers usually have a few cap casualties ahead of the start of every league year and 2021 isn’t likely to be any different. As we sit here in September, Vance McDonald ($5,200,000), Vince Williams ($4,000,000) and Stefen Wisniewski ($1,425,000) are all prime candidates to have their contracts terminated within a few months after the 2020 season ends. Magically, the cap savings produced by terminating the contracts of those three players is $10,625,000, which is a little more than the 10 million estimated needed amount. Should any of those three players wish to remain in Pittsburgh, they would likely need to consider dropping the 2021 base salaries down to the minimums. Depending on how Eric Ebron fares in 2020, it’s worth noting that he could also wind up being a spring cap casualty. If that were to happen, another $6 million in cap space would be instantly cleared.

So, with one Roethlisberger extension, four full contract restructures and three contract terminations, the Steelers should be able to be close to being cap compliant to a $175 million cap number. Obviously, the final rollover amount from 2020 is a moving number and likely to decrease by as much as half by the end of the regular season. That’s why I threw Ebron’s name into the mix as a possible fourth cap casualty.

What else can the Steelers do to clear 2020 cap space by the middle of March?

Well, David DeCastro and Steven Nelson might both be prime for contract extensions next spring and the same could go for Maurkice Pouncey. If those three players were given fair market contract extensions, the result could be a minimum of around $7 million in 2021 salary cap space being created. Any more that might be created would be gravy. However, these extensions would need to get done a lot earlier in the offseason than the Steelers normally do them and those time constraints would give the players some leverage in negotiations. At the very least, Pouncey would likely get done and maybe DeCastro as well. A Nelson extension, if one ultimately were to get done, might not ultimately happen until later in the summer.

So, what about the numerous Steelers players set to become free agents in March of 2021?

While I have easily and realistically carved out a path for the Steelers to get compliant to a $175 million cap number should they need to, finding ways to accommodate a few of their own free agents is extremely tough to do.

Bud Dupree is as good as gone, so you can forget about him.

As for the next highest profile scheduled 2021 unrestricted free agent, JuJu Smith-Schuster, odds are good that the Steelers would likely need to first franchise tag him before the start of the 2021 league year in March to ensure they keep him in Pittsburgh at least one more season. His market value is already likely sitting at a floor of $16 million per season entering Week 2 and could grow by several million more by the time March rolls around. What will the wide receiver franchise tag ultimately wind up being? It’s hard to speculate this far out but Joel Corry of CBS Sports did just that several weeks ago and has it at $15.681 million, based on the league’s cap number being $175 million.

Could the Steelers get themselves to a place where they could afford a $15.681 million franchise tag cap charge for Smith-Schuster by the start of the new league year? Maybe…, but to do so it might would take the team parting ways with a veteran cornerback such as Haden or Nelson, whichever one was to have the poorest play in 2020.

While the Steelers should be able to easily retain whatever exclusive rights free agents they’ll have come the end of the 2020 season, their remaining list of unrestricted types that includes higher profile players such as Matt Feiler, Mike Hilton, Alejandro Villanueva, Cameron Sutton, and James Conner, will be next to impossible to keep if the 2021 cap number comes in at $175 million.

So, what if the 2021 cap number comes in as high as 2020’s amount of $198.2 million?

Well, such a windfall, if you would call it that, would really help the Steelers out significantly. While the team would still likely extend Roethlisberger and still likely restructure the contracts of the players I listed earlier in this post, a contract termination or two in the spring might possibly be avoided. Additionally, a 2021 cap number of around $198.2 million would make the retention of Smith-Schuster next spring a lot more plausible, though still unlikely.

The Steelers aren’t usually highly active in outside free agency annually and thus expectations for 2021 when it comes to that part of the offseason should already be thrown out the door. They’ll concentrate on keeping whichever ones of their own that they can and then move on.

Do keep in mind what I wrote earlier in this post when it comes to several things the Steelers will need to afford past the start of the new league year in March as that’s quite a bit of cap space that will need accommodating. Additionally, sometime next summer we’ll see T.J. Watt sign a mega extension that pays him around $30 million annually. While Watt is already on the 2021 books for a cap number of $10,089,000, that number figures to increase some after his extension is finalized ahead of the start of the 2021 regular season. That increase will need to be accommodated just like the other itemizations listed above, which includes the team wanting to have at least $8 million in available cap space for the 2021 season.

Is the Steelers 2021 cap outlook fantastic? Absolutely not, and especially if the final 2021 league-wide number comes in at $175 million. Even so, getting cap compliant isn’t the biggest issue for the Steelers overall as I have laid out above The biggest issue is making everything work past the start of the league year in March.

Keep your fingers crossed that the NFL has seen the worst of the pandemic and that half-filled stadiums can be achieved by the halfway point of the regular season. The saving grace for the 2021 Steelers might ultimately be that the league-wide cap number comes in a lot closer to this year’s number as opposed to the agreed to floor amount of $175 million.

2021 PLAYERS UNDER CONTRACT TOP 51 (Week 1 2020)
PLAYER BASE SALARY PRORATIONS ROSTER BONUS CAP CHARGE
Ben Roethlisberger $4,000,000 $22,250,000 $15,000,000 $41,250,000
Joe Haden $7,000,000 $8,575,000 $0 $15,575,000
Stephon Tuitt $9,000,000 $5,940,750 $0 $14,940,750
Cameron Heyward $4,500,000 $4,050,000 $6,000,000 $14,550,000
Maurkice Pouncey $8,000,000 $6,475,000 $0 $14,475,000
Steven Nelson $8,250,000 $6,170,000 $0 $14,420,000
David DeCastro $8,750,000 $5,547,500 $0 $14,297,500
T.J. Watt $10,089,000 $0 $0 $10,089,000
Eric Ebron $5,500,000 $2,500,000 $500,000 $8,500,000
Vance McDonald $5,200,000 $2,727,500 $0 $7,927,500
Vince Williams $4,000,000 $3,031,668 $0 $7,031,668
Devin Bush $2,210,616 $2,936,230 $0 $5,146,846
Chris Boswell $3,085,000 $1,683,333 $0 $4,773,333
Derek Watt $1,750,000 $1,083,333 $1,000,000 $3,833,333
Terrell Edmunds $1,938,789 $1,465,053 $0 $3,403,842
Minkah Fitzpatrick $2,722,878 $0 $0 $2,722,878
Stefen Wisniewski $1,425,000 $187,500 $0 $1,612,500
Chase Claypool $910,756 $593,025 $0 $1,503,781
James Washington $1,093,821 $338,426 $0 $1,432,247
Kameron Canaday $1,065,000 $225,000 $0 $1,290,000
Mason Rudolph $1,014,801 $233,066 $0 $1,247,867
Diontae Johnson $884,178 $283,357 $0 $1,167,535
Chukwuma Okorafor $920,000 $203,091 $0 $1,123,091
Justin Layne $850,000 $230,545 $0 $1,080,545
Benny Snell Jr. $850,000 $175,517 $0 $1,025,517
Alex Highsmith $814,518 $208,073 $0 $1,022,591
Jaylen Samuels $920,000 $64,516 $0 $984,516
Anthony McFarland, Jr. $780,000 $180,608 $0 $960,608
Kevin Dotson $780,000 $164,703 $0 $944,703
Zach Gentry $850,000 $86,115 $0 $936,115
Isaiah Buggs $850,000 $42,158 $0 $892,158
Ulysees Gilbert III $850,000 $31,960 $0 $881,960
Carlos Davis $780,000 $23,376 $0 $803,376
James Pierre $780,000 $3,000 $0 $783,000
Placeholder $660,000 $0 $0 $660,000
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DEAD MONEY 2021
PLAYER * * * CAP CHARGE
Antonie Brooks Jr. * * * $128,124
Josiah Coatney * * * $10,000
Calvin Taylor * * * $6,667
Corliss Waitman * * * $6,000
Trajan Bandy * * * $6,000
James Lockhart * * * $5,667
John Houston * * * $5,000
Leo Lewis * * * $4,667
Christian Montano * * * $2,500
Spencer Nigh * * * $1,667
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