The Pittsburgh Steelers, even on a flat cap, would be over the cap if the new league year began today. They have among the most difficult cap situations of any team in the league. Given that they seem in most eyes to be a team on a downward trend, that would seem to pose a bit of a problem—especially in an offseason with a number of key players heading into free agency.
The Cleveland Browns appear to be heading in the opposite direction, and have quite a bit of cap room. In fact, they have the most carryover cap space from the 2020 season of any team, of more than $30 million, since that was how below the cap they were a year ago.
Even without the carryover figure, the Browns were projected to be about $20 million below the 2021 salary cap based on the $180 million salary cap floor, which ranked as the 10th-most space in the league. Add another $30 million on top of that, and you have something to work with, to state the obvious.
And as far as their list of pending free agents go, it’s something less than a murderer’s row. Arguably the most notable name on the list is defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who is, at best, the third-best-known of their starting defensive linemen. Olivier Vernon, coming off of a knee injury, is also apparently going to be a free agent, but would be unlikely to be retained at this point.
Sure, there are some guys that they might like to keep around, such as wide receiver Rashard Higgins, and a number of defensive backs like Terrance Mitchel, Andrew Sendejo, and Karl Joseph, as well as Kevin Johnson, the majority of whom they brought in just last season on one-year deals.
But even with all of this, they figure to have plenty of cap space to get things done—one of those things possibly being to bring in J.J. Watt, replacing Vernon as one of their starting edge defenders, playing opposite Myles Garrett.
It helps that they have a quarterback who is under a rookie contract, and whether or not they give Baker Mayfield an extension this offseason (the same question could be posted to the Baltimore Ravens) remains to be seen. They gave Garrett an extension after his third season last year.
Meanwhile, the Steelers are just trying to figure out whether or not they are going to have to cut anybody just to get within cap compliance. But the biggest reason for this disparity is not management. It’s talent. The Browns have had a cyclical roster for a really long time, because nobody was worth second contracts, let alone major deals.
Now that they are finding success, they are going to have to start pouring money into their core to keep players around. Garrett is locked up. Will they pay Nick Chubb? How about Denzel Ward? If they are actually going to be a successful team, they’re going to have to figure out how to manage the cap with a talented roster.