The Pittsburgh Steelers operate under different parameters than many teams when it comes to the manner in which they structure their contracts. They also verge from the norm with respect to what they are willing to guarantee.
Organizations like the New England Patriots are willing to give second and third-year guarantees to mid-level tight ends to get them to sign. The Steelers have never given second-year guarantees to any outside free-agent signing. In fact, they’ve only recently broken that mold with T.J. Watt’s extension.
Which means that the contracts they give players are effectively a series of one-year deals, depending on how much of a dead cap number the Steelers are willing to eat. That includes the contract right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor got in 2022 as he was hitting free agency. He is due $10 million in 2023, but Pittsburgh could save about $6 million after displacement if they were to cut him. He knows that.
“Everyone knows what might happen or what might not happen, so we will see how things play out”, he told Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. While it’s far from likely that they would cut him given no alternative, stranger things have happened.
On re-signing with the Steelers as a pending unrestricted free agent on a three-year deal, Okorafor told Adamski, “I did that because I wanted to be here, and I want to play here. So, hopefully I am”. The Steelers drafted him in 2018 and have developed him since, now a three-year starter.
He signed a three-year, $29.5 million contract a year ago, of which $9.25 million was a signing bonus and thus guaranteed. Not even his $1.25 million base salary was technically guaranteed formally, but the Steelers were obviously not going to cut him after giving him $9.25 million. They actually would have taken a larger cap hit for cutting him due to the prorated bonus accelerating.
Complicating any consideration of the Steelers cutting Okorafor is the fact that he is due a $4 million roster bonus in March. That means they cannot possibly know what they might end up with in the 2023 NFL Draft without committing another $4 million to Okorafor.
But even though it’s virtually a given that he isn’t going anywhere in 2023, the conversation starts over in 2024. The Steelers will owe him $8.75 million that season. What if, say, they draft a first-round tackle and Dan Moore Jr. proves more reliable? Would they be willing to pay Okorafor $8.75 million in 2024?
That’s the nature of a league in which there are no guarantees unless they’re in writing. And even then, virtually any guarantee could be voided under disciplinary circumstances. And that’s precisely why so many players focus on the total guarantees at signing when they get new deals.
As for Okorafor, though, I wouldn’t count on him going anywhere for a while, at least not through the life of his current contract. The odds of the Steelers finding two better tackles over the next two offseasons, given other needs elsewhere, feels rather low.
And he’s been a solid performer who has generally gotten more comfortable. The 2024 season will mark the greatest stability he’s ever had in his starting career. In each of the past three seasons, he has had a different right guard and center and a different offensive line coach.