Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Chukwuma Okorafor just finished his third season in the NFL in the team’s Sunday night playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns and now the Western Michigan product and former third-round draft pick will look ahead to improving his craft during the upcoming offseason. Okorafor can also look forward to getting a substantial increase in pay in 2021 because of him qualifying for the NFL’s Proven Performance Escalator in 2020 due to the number of snaps that he played.
In the league’s new CBA, the Proven Performance Escalator is now a three-level, non-negotiable amount in which a player’s base salary in the fourth year of his rookie contract increases if he meets certain predetermined thresholds.
The Level One PPE is structured differently for second-round picks and those selected in Rounds 3 through 7. To qualify for Level One, second-round picks must either (a) play 60 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive plays in any two of his first three seasons or (b) participate in a cumulative average of 60 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive plays over the course of his first three regular seasons. For third- through seventh-round picks, players can hit either (a) or (b) above, but the threshold to reach drops to 35 percent of such plays.
For such players, the Level One PPE increases a player’s fourth-year base salary by the difference of the original-round tender for restricted free agents set for the player’s fourth season and the player’s Year 4 rookie salary, less any signing bonus prorations. This amount is then added to the player’s Year 4 base salary.
Let’s look at Okorafor as an example. A third-round pick in 2018, Okorafor played more than 35 percent of the Steelers’ offensive plays over the course of three seasons and is thus eligible for the Level One PPE. After barely playing in his first two seasons with the Steelers, Okorafor played 94.1% of all offensive snaps in 2020 and that was enough for him break the 35% threshold for his first three seasons combined.
So, with Okorafor qualified, what does that mean for him salary wise in 2021? Well, it means his 2021 salary will increase from the scheduled amount of $920,000 up to the amount of an original-round tender for restricted free agents, which right now is projected to be $2.24 million. So, an increase of $1.32 million for Okorafor. That extra increase, however, does go against the Steelers salary cap as well.
In case you’re curious, Pro Football Focus has Okorafor down as allowing three sacks during the 2020 season in addition to five quarterback hits and 21 hurries. He started the season as the Steelers backup swing tackle as Zach Banner beat him out during training camp for the starting right tackle job. Banner, however, was lost for the season to a knee injury during the second half of the Steelers Week 1 road win against the New York Giants. Okorafor then became the starter at right tackle in Week 2 and beyond and proceeded to play all but a few offensive snaps the remainder of the season.
While Okorafor managed to qualify for a Proven Performance Escalator in his first three seasons in the NFL with the Steelers, the rest of the remaining members of the team’s 2018 draft class still with the team, wide receiver James Washington, quarterback Mason Rudolph, inside linebacker Marcus Allen and running back Jaylen Samuels, all failed to.