With the revised salary cap floor of $180 million, the Pittsburgh Steelers still find themselves quite substantially over the cap heading into the start of the new league year of 2021, in the ballpark of about $19 million, if I’m not mistaken.
While they have some resources at their disposal to get under the cap, including some contract magic with Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt, the reality is that they’ll be hardpressed to scrape up much expendable income to do much. That includes even their own free agents.
Earlier this week, general manager Kevin Colbert all but ruled out their possibly using a franchise or transition tag, calling it doubtful, but it might as well be viewed as synonymous with impossible. It is virtually impossible for them to tag any offensive or defensive player and still conduct their business without hamstringing themselves.
That won’t stop people from talking about the possibilities, though, and Pro Football Focus recently took a stab at evaluating the most likely candidate for the franchise tag for each team.
Before we get started, though, the curious thing about the list is that they listed no candidate for nine teams—and yet they managed to find one for the Steelers. That candidate ended up being left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, whose franchise tag number would be north of $13.5 million. Brad Spielberger writes:
Villanueva has been as consistent a player as you can hope for at left tackle, with five straight seasons earning at least a 76.5 pass-blocking grade (including three above 80.0) on 995 snaps or more in each year. While he’ll be turning 33 in September, he’s only played six NFL seasons after serving in the military. He doesn’t have nearly as much tread on his tires compared to players his age, and we’ve also seen plenty of tackles play well into their 30s regardless.
Villanueva played out his four-year, $24 million contract signed in 2017 even though he easily could’ve gone back to the Steelers and asked to rip that up for a new deal, which he deserved. This could suggest that perhaps he’d rather agree to another multi-year extension with more assurances long-term, even if arguably below his true market value, just to avoid a franchise tag situation.
The Steelers have one of the more challenging salary cap situations in the entire NFL this offseason, so an extension that helps them keep his 2021 cap hit down would be preferable to a franchise tag.
The evaluation itself is reasonable. The only thing that makes it hard to understand is why they bothered to list a tag candidate for the Steelers in the first place, which would obviously not happen. If they did have the cap space to tag somebody, then Villanueva would be a likely option (and it would be cheaper than JuJu Smith-Schuster or Bud Dupree).