I didn’t envision having to write a post about reasons why the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t likely to use the Transition Tag on cornerback Cameron Sutton ahead of the start of the 2023 league year in March, but thanks to tweets like the one you see below, I guess I need to do so to make sure everyone has the facts. So, here we go with it.
For starters, the annual NFL tagging period opened on Tuesday and until 4:00 p.m., New York time on March 7, clubs may now designate Franchise or Transition Players. The tag amounts for both kinds of tags are below for you to see.
So, what is a transition tag?
The transition tag, which is based on the NFL’s salary cap number for the upcoming season, is a one-year tender offer for the average of the top 10 salaries at each position — as opposed to the top five for the franchise tag. The transition tag guarantees the original club the right of first refusal to match any offer the player might receive from another club once the free agency signing period starts. Should a team fail to match an offer sheet from another team signed by a transition-tagged player, that team isn’t awarded any compensation for losing said player.
Here is something else to keep in mind when it comes to tagged players. Once a player is tagged by a team, said team must be able to accommodate the full tag amount within their salary cap starting the first day of the new league year in March. In the case of Sutton, a transition tag amount for him would be $15.791 million and thus the Steelers would need to accommodate that full amount in their cap come the start of the new league year.
I currently have the Steelers projected March 15 cap number as being $524,852 over and that projected amount includes Sutton’s dead money from his recently voided contract, in addition to the NFL’s annual workout bonus placeholder charge of $849,600. Obviously, the Steelers will need to be under the cap by March 15 so moves are forthcoming in the next three weeks to make sure that happens..
Could the Steelers make enough cuts or perform enough restructures to allow them to accommodate a transition tag amount of $15.791 million for Sutton? Absolutely they could. That said, would they want to accommodate such a big charge while they wait to see if Sutton receives any offer sheets from other teams that might fancy him? Probably not. That’s a chunk of cap change to sit on.
Now, let’s say Sutton doesn’t receive an offer sheet to his liking that he wants to sign and he ends up signing the Steelers transition tag offer by the deadline, which I think is sometime in July? Well, the Steelers could obviously work a new deal with him at any time after they tag him and prior to him signing an offer sheet. A new deal would obviously likely result in a lower 2023 cap charge.
The above noted, placing a $15.791 million transition tag on Sutton tells the player and his representation that he is worth at least that per year to the team. In short, and if Sutton’s representation does their job correctly, any new deal negotiations will start at $15.791 million per year average. Remember, Sutton could just decide to sign the transition tag tender and play under it for the 2023 season and then see about possibly testing unrestricted free agency in 2024. That’s nearly $16 million he would earn for just one season and thus his side has a ton of bargaining power once he’s transition tagged.
Okay, what about the matched offer sheet part? Well, once again, Sutton does not have to sign any offer sheet he does not like, and keep in mind he stands to earn $15.791 million in 2023 from the Steelers if he turns down all offer sheets. Should, however, Sutton find an offer sheet he deems worthy of signing, it might have terms or be structured in a way that the Steelers don’t want to match it. Remember, an unmatched offer sheet means the player leaves without any compensation to the former team and that includes compensatory draft pick value as well.
See all the issues here when it comes to Sutton and him receiving the transition tag from the Steelers? There should be enough issues listed that make it seem almost guaranteed that the Steelers won’t transition tag him. By the way, since 2016, there have been just three players issued transition tags by teams; Olivier Vernon (2016), Kyle Fuller (2018), and Kenyan Drake (2020). I think you can understand why based on everything I’ve written so far.
So, what’s the best-case scenario when it comes to Sutton in the coming weeks? Well, getting him signed to a new deal before the start of the new league year in the middle of March. Once the annual scouting combine is over with, the Steelers and Sutton’s representation should have a pretty good idea as to what the cornerback’s market value is. From there, the two sides will have less than two weeks to get a new deal done so that Sutton does not test unrestricted free agency. Personally, I think that’s what ultimately happens.