Annually spending close to the NFL salary cap, a surprise drop of almost $16 million to that cap this offseason hit the Steelers harder than a lot of franchises, and resulted in multiple players leaving as free agents or seeing their release by the team. Drawing some of the biggest headlines as a result of his surprise release was cornerback Steven Nelson, who had starred for the team the prior two seasons. Nelson remained a free agent for months, and only signed with Philadelphia two days ago, while the Steelers had $12 million in cap space available to potentially top the Eagles’ $4 million offer.
With Pittsburgh still weak at cornerback and making recent signings such as former L.A. Chargers Melvin Ingram and Trai Turner, general manager Kevin Colbert was asked about Nelson’s release during a training camp media session.
“We’d really make some tough decisions, we had starters that we would’ve liked to have kept. We would’ve liked to have kept all of our starters and start over this year. But we weren’t able to do that. We knew about it, and we had to make some changes as it went on. And as you go through a spring and you’re able to sign a player on your own team, and then you say, ‘If you do this, you may have to cut this player.’ And we had to do those back and forths,” Colbert said.
The specific back-and-forth came when Pittsburgh was surprisingly able to retain receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on a one-year deal, bringing back a star expected to score a far bigger and longer contract on a normal free agent market. The consequence of that $8 million deal, paired with the re-signing of Cameron Sutton to take on a bigger role at cornerback, was that the Steelers cut Nelson, due $8.25 million this season.
It was part of a series of losses for the franchise as Pittsburgh struggled to adjust to that unexpected drop in the cap. Nelson was the biggest cut, while fellow corner Mike Hilton was among a group of free agency losses including Bud Dupree, Matt Feiler, and Alejandro Villanueva.
But in the last month, Pittsburgh has been very active on the open market. The team signed guard Trai Turner in late June for $3 million, and then Melvin Ingram just over a week ago for $4 million. Both are former Pro Bowlers and spent last season with the Chargers, and both are expected to contribute this year. Turner as the starting right guard, and Ingram alongside Alex Highsmith as the edge rushers opposite T.J. Watt.
The only reason either of those signings happened was another surprise release by the franchise, but in a different vein than Nelson’s: David DeCastro, an All-Pro guard who was recovering from injury and is potentially retiring from the game.
The initial question about Nelson’s release had a second part: Why, when the team had open cap space as a result of that release, and a glaring weakness at cornerback — James Pierre and Antoine Brooks Jr. are the front-runners to replace Nelson as one of the team’s top three corners — did it not bring back Nelson as well?
“Really, our cap situation changed coming out of minicamp, when we decided to move on from David. And all of a sudden we had cap room, and now we’re looking at wait a minute, this player is available, we might be able to sign him because he was looking for a certain number back in the spring, now in the early summer he might be more affordable. So we tried to make those decisions,” Colbert said. “It’s an individual thing. Sometimes, it’s positional. Sometimes it’s just a money issue, how you can afford certain players. And we’re happy with the group that’s come together to this point. When Melvin Ingram was still available and we could work it, we were happy to do that. When Trai Turner was affordable and workable, we were happy to do that. So we’ll see what we’ve got.”