Steelers 2021 Salary Cap Primer Series: Part 2 – Plausible Path To Getting Well Compliant By March 17

A little less than seven weeks from today the 2021 NFL league year will start and at that time all 32 teams will need to be compliant with the Rule of 51 regarding the salary cap. These next six weeks figure to include the Pittsburgh Steelers making quite a few moves in order to get salary cap compliment and especially if the league’s salary cap number comes in at the floor amount of $175 million.

With so much misinformation already floating around on other sites concerning the Steelers current salary cap situation and the things the team will need to do to be compliant in the next seven weeks, I thought I would continue setting the record straight on this Saturday morning with yet another post in this series that goes over the major set of hurdles the Steelers will have between now and March 17, the start of the 2021 NFL league year, in terms of them getting cap compliant.

To continue this series, we’ll look at a simple and very plausible path for the Steelers to get salary cap compliant based not only on where they are currently, but the league-wide salary cap number also coming in at $175 million begin this series.

DISCLAIMER: We are forced to use $175 million as a projected league-wide salary cap amount until further notice due to that being the low floor amount the NFL and NFLPA collectively bargained ahead of the 2020 season getting underway due to possible economic impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Obviously, the greater the final number is for 2021, the more beneficial it will be for the Steelers. While I personally believe the 2021 league wide salary cap amount will ultimately come in higher than $185 million, that’s mere speculation on my part. Obviously, if the 2021 salary cap number winds up being flat and thus $198.2 million like it was in 2020, it considerably changes the Steelers salary cap outlook for the offseason. 

STARTING POINT: We last left off in this series establishing that the Steelers are currently $30,058,665 over a salary cap number of $175 million. That’s quite an overage and while not impossible to trim down, will take quite a bit of maneuvering in the next six weeks. Below are several things the Steelers can do in the next few weeks to trim well more than $30 million off their 2021 salary cap number.

EXPECTED CONTRACT RESTRUCTURES: Expect the Steelers to do at least two restructures of contracts belonging to players currently signed through the 2021 season. Those two players should be defensive tackle Cameron Heyward and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. I outlined in a recent post what will happen in both of those full restructures and you can read it by following the link below. In total, full contract restructures done on Heyward and Tuitt would result in the Steelers clearing $11,031,250 in 2021 salary cap space.

OTHER POSSIBLE CONTRACT RESTRUCTURES: Outside of Heyward and Tuitt, the Steelers really don’t have many legitimate traditional contract restructure candidates this offseason. They could restructure the contract of Chris Boswell if both sides agree and in doing so it would free up another $1,047,500 in 2021 salary cap space. Depending on how pinched the Steelers are for cap space these next six weeks will determine if Boswell gets restructured.

ROETHLISBERGER NO NEW MONEY UP FRONT EXTENSION: We learned for sure this past week that the Steelers want quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back in 2021, the final year of his current contract, if they can work out an agreement with him to lower his $41.25 million salary cap charge. The most logical way for the Steelers to lower Roethlisberger’s 2021 salary cap charge without the quarterback taking any pay cut from the $19 million he’s scheduled to earn, is to work out an extension with no new money and likely one that includes voidable years. Basically, Roethlisberger would agree to have his contract extended up to four more years and all but $1.075 million of the $19 million he’s due in 2021 turned into a signing bonus so that it can amortized out over a five-year span on paper. I detailed such an extension out back in August that you can read in the post linked below. Such an extension, which is very plausible to happen based on what team president Art Rooney II said on Thursday, would clear $14.34 million in 2021 salary cap space but at the same time create a dead money charge in 2022 of $14.34 million. The tacked on four years of such a Roethlisberger extension could be structured in various ways and none of which are important to cover as the end result of all of them still would result in $14.34 million in maximum cap space being saved if the quarterback doesn’t take a pay cut and takes no new money in 2021 as part of him signing such an extension. The extension does not need to be for four years, but the shorter it is, the less cap space in 2021 will be saved.

POUNCEY NO NEW MONEY UP FRONT EXTENSION OR RETIREMENT: What’s going to happen with center Maurkice Pouncey in the next six weeks? We should find out way before March 17 as he’ll either retire or agree to play out the final year of his contract that is scheduled to pay him $8 million. Let’s start with Pouncey retiring as the first plausible thing that could happen. Should the Steelers longtime veteran center retire, the Steelers would save $8 million in 2021 salary cap space pending top 51 roster displacement. In short, the Steelers would save $7.34 million in real cap space should Pouncey retire. Another option the Steelers will have if Pouncey wants to play just one more season is to sign him to a deal similar to that of Roethlisberger’s. In short, add four voidable years on to Pouncey’s contract and turn all but $1.075 million of the $8 million salary he’s due in 2021 into a signing bonus into a signing bonus so that it can amortized out over a five-year span on paper. I detailed such an extension for Pouncey just a few days ago that you can read in the post linked below. Such an extension, which is very plausible to happen based once again on what Rooney said on Thursday, would clear $5.54 million in 2021 salary cap space but at the same time create a dead money charge in 2022 of $5.54 million. Outside of Pouncey taking a straight pay cut or retiring, that’s the most the Steelers can clear in the coming weeks by manipulating his contract via a voidable extension that includes no new money in 2021.

REGULAR EXTENSIONS FOR DECASTRO AND NELSON: Will the Steelers sign any players not named T.J. Watt currently under contract for 2021 season to extensions this offseason? It’s possible. It’s also possible that such extensions could take place prior to the start of the new league year in March due to the cap crunch the team is in this offseason. Other than Watt, who is likely to get his mega contract extension later in the summer? The two likeliest candidates for the Steelers to sign to fair market value extensions in the next seven weeks are guard David DeCastro and cornerback Steven Nelson. While guessing total amounts and extension lengths for both DeCastro and Nelson is extremely tough in this current climate, getting both done could plausibly produce a minimum total combined 2021 salary cap savings of $5 million. Obviously that cap savings number for 2021 could be plausibly as high as maybe $8 million, but it’s probably good to stay on the more conservative end.

CONTRACT TERMINATIONS/SALARY REDUCTIONS: Will the Steelers have any salary cap casualties in the next six weeks? They certainly could and there’s two players that could plausibly have their contracts terminated are inside linebacker Vince Williams and fullback Derek Watt. If both were to have their contracts terminated in the near future, the combined cap savings after top 51 roster displacement would be just $4,346,666. Yep, that’s it, not even $4.5 million in real cap savings for 2021. It’s there, however, if the Steelers need the cap space. A better option, at least when it comes to Williams, who is scheduled to earn $4 million in 2021, is to see if he would be willing to take a pay cut of around $2 million. That might be the best option for both as it would allow the Steelers to keep a veteran player and it would keep Williams off the street looking for a team to sign him on the cheap. As for Watt, the Steelers only save right around $1 million in 2021 salary cap space after roster displacement by cutting him. That’s not a lot and thus why he’ll likely still be on the roster past March 17.

SUMMARY: As you can see above, I easily produced a very plausible scenario that would result in the Steelers clearing over $40 million in 2021 salary cap space in the next six weeks. The clearing of $40 million in 2021 salary cap space in this manner would put the Steelers more than $10 million under a $175 million salary cap number, should it wind up coming in that low, which I do not believe it ultimately will. What if the league-wide number comes in at $185 million or more? Obviously, such a higher number would bode well for the Steelers and would allow them to potentially re-sign a few of their own higher profile soon-to-be unrestricted free agents such as maybe wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, cornerback Cameron Sutton and maybe even cornerback Mike Hilton.

CLOSING STATEMENT: The first two posts in this series are designed to take readers through the process of the Steelers getting salary cap compliant by March 17. As outlined in the first post in this series, the Steelers will still have quite a bit of costs to overcome once March 17 arrives and that means salary cap space will be needed to accommodate such things as a practice squad, draft class, and undrafted player roster displacements, 52nd and 53rd roster spots as well as any unrestricted, restricted, or exclusive rights free agent signings. We’ll look closer at those expected post new league year costs and how the Steelers will accommodate them once March 17 arrives and we see the work that has been done to get the team cap compliant.

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