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2021 Offseason Questions: Would Steelers Still Have Released Nelson If They Didn’t Re-Sign JuJu?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season is now in the books, and it ended in spectacular fashion—though the wrong kind of spectacular—in a dismal postseason defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, sending them into an early offseason mode after going 12-4 in the regular season and winning the AFC North for the first time in three years.

After setting a franchise record by opening the year on an 11-game winning streak, they followed that up by losing three games in a row, going 1-4 in the final five games, with only a 17-point comeback staving off a five-game slide. But all the issues they had in the regular season showed up in the postseason that resulted in their early exit.

The only thing facing them now as they head into 2021 is more questions, and right now, they lack answers. What will Ben Roethlisberger do, and what will they do with him? What will the salary cap look like? How many free agents are they going to lose? Who could they possibly afford to retain? Who might they part ways with—not just on the roster, but also on the coaching staff?

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.

Question: Would the Steelers have still released Steven Nelson if they had not re-signed JuJu Smith-Schuster?

The evidence—their lack of usable cap space that isn’t already earmarked for future predictable expenses—would point to the very stark possibility that the answer to this question is yes. While the Steelers re-signed JuJu Smith-Schuster to a one-year contract worth $8 million, the deal contains void years that gets his 2021 salary cap hit down to a difference of less than $2 million after displacement.

In contrast, they cleared almost $7.5 million in salary cap space after displacement with the release of Nelson, which is three times more than Smith-Schuster cost them for this season. The leftover space, however, is already spoken for as predictable expense for the upcoming draft class, the 52nd and 53rd roster spots, the practice squad, and in-season carryover.

The bottom line is the Steelers would have still had to create more cap space whether they re-signed Smith-Schuster or not. But one wonders if there are other things they could have done outside of releasing one of their starting cornerbacks (and for all intents and purposes, let’s eliminate the possibility of releasing Joe Haden instead, since that’s basically indistinguishable from the point here).

From the sounds of it, this move wasn’t up to Nelson at all, even though the way it was framed when the news was reported suggested that it might be otherwise. This is something the Steelers decided they needed to do—get Nelson’s salary off the books—not the end result of a disgruntled employee demanding things.

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