For some unknown reason, New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold has become a big topic when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, I realize that Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster talking about wanting to get Darnold to Pittsburgh during a recent podcast interview has played a big part in that, but even so, the Darnold to Steelers topic has been around at least since the middle of September and was likely started by CBS Sports hack Will Brinson with the tweet below.
Jets gonna fire Gase, draft Trevor Lawrence, trade Darnold to the Steelers for a 5th round pick and he's gonna win 2023 MVP.
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) September 13, 2020
Now, before we go any further, please let the record show that I was high on Darnold coming out of USC and he was even my top quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft. I still think he has some untapped potential either with the Jets or another team based on what I’ve seen so far from him at the NFL level. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens to Darnold after this season should the Jets wind up having a new head coach and the opportunity to draft another quarterback first or second overall.
Do I think that Darnold would be an interesting fit with the Steelers? Absolutely. However, with that said, you can pretty much forget about Darnold being a member of the Steelers for at least the next two years.
For starters, the Steelers will be cap-strapped in 2021 and thus it will take quite a bit of finagling for them to just get compliant come the start of the new league year in March. Part of that finagling and cap massaging might just include Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger signing yet another contract extension of at least two years, which would tie him to Pittsburgh through the 2023 season. Such an extension, as I already pointed out in a post a few weeks ago, won’t save the Steelers an exorbitant amount of 2021 salary cap space.
Darnold, in case you weren’t already aware of it, is scheduled to earn $4,604,685 in 2021, according to Over the Cap, so should a team such as the Steelers trade for the quarterback, a 2021 cap charge of $4,604,685 must be accommodated. The Steelers are already going to have a hard enough time getting cap compliant without Darnold in the fold, so unless the Jets are willing to eat all but the $920,000 base salary he’s due in 2021, there’s just no way one can logically think he’ll land with the Steelers next season.
In addition to that first major issue, which is all cap related, any team that trades for Darnold early in the offseason would then be tasked with the decision of whether to pick up his fifth-year option for the 2022 season. Even with the changes in the new CBA, Darnold’s fifth-year option amount will be quite high and thus too high for him to be on the Steelers roster in 2022 as a backup if Roethlisberger is still in the fold.
Even if the Steelers were able to get over those two huge obstacles I just outlined, Darnold would then be set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2023 and more than likely after not playing very many offensive snaps in 2022 behind Roethlisberger. Keeping Darnold in Pittsburgh in 2023 without first placing the franchise tag on him would be extremely hard to do.
Let’s also not forget that the Jets aren’t just going to give Darnold away for a bag of footballs. At worst, they will likely want a second-round pick for Darnold, a price that will likely be too rich for the Steelers to pay for a player to potentially be an overpaid backup for two seasons.
So, is there any possible way that I could see Darnold in Pittsburgh the next two seasons? The only way I could fathom such a thing is if Roethlisberger were to retire or be cut by the start of the new league in March. That would create $19 million in 2021 salary cap space and make it a little bit more plausible that Darnold could be traded for to be the Steelers heir to Roethlisberger. Am I rooting for such a thing to happen? No. Do I think such a thing will happen? No.
So, if Smith-Schuster really hopes t reunite with Darnold next season, him doing so would likely require him leaving Pittsburgh and not Darnold coming to the Steel City.
Darnold to the Steelers in 2024 or 2025? Check back with me in a few more years and maybe I’ll have thoughts on that possibly happening.