It’s still way too early to tell what kind of impact the coronavirus had on the NFL’s 2020 season and specifically league revenues for the year. How big of impact will go a long way in determining what the NFL’s salary cap number will be in 2021 as well. All we know at this point in 2021 is that the league has set a floor for the 2021 league-wide salary cap number at $175 million and that was done prior to the 2020 season getting underway. While there has been a lot of optimistic speculation of late that the 2021 salary cap number will come in close to the 2020 number of $198.2 million, a Tuesday morning report by Pro Football Talk throws some cold water on that particular notion.
According to Mike Florio on Tuesday, a league source with knowledge of the league’s current situation suggests that the 2021 salary cap could be in the range of $180 million.
Well, “could” certainly doesn’t sound definite so there’s that. Once again, we’re likely to see several people with supposed “knowledge of the situation” continue to comment on what the 2021 salary cap number will ultimately be.
Obviously, the NFL and NFLPA could still have offseason negotiations in the coming weeks that result in some sort of plan that would result in the 2021 salary cap number at least matching the 2020 number of $198.2 million, thus remaining flat. Such negotiations, however, would likely result in the league borrowing from future years. Within that, negotiations for future NFL broadcast rights are expected to start heating up very soon. Those contracts, however, are currently locked up until 2022. Can the league get something done and thus secure extensions or new contracts prior the new league year getting underway? We’ll see.
Obviously, the lower the 2021 salary cap number winds up being the worse it will be for the NFL’s group of middle-class players. A lot of teams will be forced to part ways with veteran non-star players this offseason that they likely would’ve kept had the league not been impacted by COVID-19 in 2020 if the league’s settled on number comes in well below $198.2 million.
So, what kind of shape would the Pittsburgh Steelers be should the Tuesday speculative report by Pro Football Talk winds up being correct? Not great.
The Steelers current mock Rule of 51 number now sits around $209,208,665 and that’s with 2020 carryover amounts applied. That’s more than $29 million over a cap number of $180 million. While the Steelers are expected to restructure the contracts of defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt prior to the start of the new league year in March, that would only produce a little more than $11 million in 2021 salary cap space. and thus, still leave the team more than $18 million over a cap number of $180 million.
Even if the Steelers were to cut middle-class earners such tight end Vance McDonald, inside linebacker Vince Williams and fullback Derek Watt, those contract terminations would produce just $8,886,666 in real cap savings for 2021 after minimum Rule of 51 roster displacements take place. That would still leave the Steelers $9 million over a $180 million cap number.
Moving forward into more potential bloodletting, veteran center Maurkice Pouncey might would have to go whether he wants to or not. Even if that were to be the case, Pouncey returning or being cut would clear just another $7.34 million in 2021 salary cap space after minimum Rule of 51 roster displacement takes place. So, the Steelers would still be nearly $2 million over a $180 million cap number.
See the issue? Sure, several little somethings can potentially be done with the contract of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this offseason to free up more cap space, but barring the team cutting him or him taking a flat out cut in pay, the most that can be cleared is $14.34 million. Most of that created cap space, however, would need to be earmarked later for cap room for in-season space, practice squad and post roster displacement values for the 2021 rookie class.
The Steelers would then need to decide if they want to extend more contracts of veteran players to provide even more cap relief or just outright cut several more players. That would bring the immediate futures of players such as cornerback Joe Haden, guard David DeCastro, cornerback Steven Nelson and tight end Eric Ebron all into question in the next six weeks. As it stands right now, all four of those players are currently under contract through the 2021 season. Haden and DeCastro, by the way, are both on the wrong side of 30 now as well.
The Tuesday report from Florio aside, I still believe in my heart of hearts that the NFL and NFLPA will come up with a way to ensure the 2021 salary cap number at least stays flat at $198.2 million, or very close to it. I envision the final number being no less than $195 million, which would be $20 million more than the agreed to possible floor and $15 million more than the Tuesday speculated number of $180 million.
Should my gut wind up being right and thus the 2021 cap number winds up being $198.2 million, the Steelers should then be two quick restructures of Heyward and Tuitt away from being cap compliant. From there, a few middle-class contract terminations could still take place, but the team would be in much, much better shape and might even be able to re-sign one, two or three of their own unrestricted free agents as well and especially if a little more than $10 million can be massaged out of Roethlisberger’s contract in the next six weeks.
These next six weeks will obviously move very fast so as more speculative reports concerning the NFL’s 2021 salary cap number surface, I will be sure to pass the more credible ones along to everyone. For now, however, it’s not worth getting too worked up about this Tuesday report from Florio as nobody really has a firm grasp on what the final 2021 cap number will be right now.