We’re embarking on one of the most vital off-seasons in recent memory for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as their chances of winning a Super Bowl appear to be closing sooner rather than later. The Steelers historically have not been big spenders in free agency, as the organization prefers to keep players in-house and raise their own through the NFL Draft.
Yet history may be re-written in 2019, as the Steelers have the opportunity to add key pieces to their championship puzzle with veteran experience. Pittsburgh currently sits with $14.3 million in total projected cap via Spotrac.com, and with the dismissal of running back Le’Veon Bell, the team will be able to focus on more prominent areas of the team.
The Steelers free-agent interest mostly revolves around finding a pass-catcher to potentially replace receiver Antonio Brown, who has all but earned his one way ticket out of Pittsburgh. With names like Demaryius Thomas and Golden Tate topping the list of potential free-agents, the Steelers may need to break out the checkbook like they did for Brown if they would like to replace him.
If not the receiver position, the Steelers may also look for improved secondary help after another disappointing year outside of every cornerback with the exception of Joe Haden.
Wherever they choose to spend it, the more money for the club, the better. How could they navigate the cap and clear even more space for potential free agents? Thankfully, I took the liberty of sitting behind a computer with no real life consequences for making moves and figured the best route possible for the Steelers.
Using Spotrac’s Salary Cap Management tool, we are able to find fun ways to finesse the salary cap and create as much space as possible.
The road to wealth for the Steelers goes as follows:
Restructuring Ben Roethlisberger’s Deal
Per Yahoo! Sports, the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger are expected to restructure Roethlisberger’s contract. The move will come to help relieve the cap hit Antonio Brown will leave, which will be $21 million if traded before June 1, and with the Steelers wanting to find Brown’s replacement sooner rather than later, it’s plausible to see Pittsburgh trading him before summer hits.
So how much would Big Ben offer to have taken off his checks? Thankfully, Roethlisberger has been extremely helpful in assisting the Steelers and their cap situations. In 2012 and 2013, Roethlisberger restructured his base salary to help generate cap room. In 2012, Ben went from $11.6 million in salary earnings to $900,000. In 2013, he dropped from $11.6 million to $2.6 million.
2012 savings= $10.7 million
2013 savings= $9 million
In 2015, Roethlisberger signed a 4 year, $87.4 million extension. That figure averages out to $21.85 million per season.
While Ben makes money per season on his current contract as opposed to his first big payday, we’ll use roughly the same figure ($10 million averaged between 2012/2013) for 2019’s restructure. With Roethlisberger’s generous history and being on the verge of winning another title, Ben takes the hit to make a few more runs at a championship.
Roethlisberger’s 2019 salary= $13.2 million
Total Cap Savings= $10 million
Total Cap Space= $24.3 million
Trading Antonio Brown
While Antonio Brown continues to stress the importance of guaranteed money in his next deal, the Steelers will have to hold a big portion of his 2019 salary. As previously mentioned, the Steelers will accrue a cap hit of $21 million in 2019 regardless of where Brown plays, so long as he is traded before June 1. Yet if Brown is traded before March 17, the Steelers will not have to pay him a $2.5 million roster bonus.
If Brown is traded, draft picks are the likely return Pittsburgh will be looking for in a trade. While a player in return is indeed possible, the player/salary is too complicated to predict, marking a straight up trade of Brown for draft capital.
The Steelers will save $1,045,000 with Brown off the roster this season. A trade is all but inevitable, as Brown has burned most if not all bridges with the organization.
Antonio Brown= Traded
Total Cap Savings= $11.045 million
Total Cap Space= $25.4 million
Releasing Morgan Burnett
Just over a month ago, safety Morgan Burnett made it publicly known he wanted out of his current deal with the Steelers. With Burnett missing time due to injuries (a staple of his career) and his overall play not jumping off the page (30 total tackles while only playing 10 games in 2018), Pittsburgh may feel the same way.
Two young safeties in Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis would allow Burnett to be released with no hard impact on the defensive side of the ball. A mutual split between Burnett/Pittsburgh would benefit both parties and allow the Steelers more cap relief for 2019, while sacrificing no serious impact on the roster. Cutting Burnett will allow the Steelers to save $3.6 million in salary cap space, despite owing Burnett $2.8 million in dead money if released.
Morgan Burnett= Cut
Total Cap Savings= $14.678 million
Total Cap Space= $29.062 million
Restructuring Cam Heyward’s Deal
Cam Heyward has evolved into a vital, important leader on the Steelers defense. The defensive linemen was rewarded for his growth on and off the field with a 6 year, $59.2 million contract in 2015. Heyward, similar to Roethlisberger, has restructured his deal to assist the team when needed in the past. Both in 2017/2018 Heyward allowed Pittsburgh to rework his deal to create cap space, converting $4.225 million in 2017 and $8.085 million in 2018 into a signing bonus.
The moves cleared up an average of $4.275 million the last two seasons, and that’s the figure we can use to create a general idea of what possible outcome may occur this off-season (We’ll use $4 million as a rough estimate). Heyward’s proven to be a team player, and the Steelers just might dial his number once again for one more cap favor.
By converting his salary into a bonus and paying the league minimum salary, the team will save $3.91 million in 2019.
Cam Heyward’s 2019 Cap Hit: $10.991 million
Total Cap Savings: $18.588 million
Total Cap Space: $32.97 million
With the above moves, the Steelers would generate nearly $20 million more in cap room, giving them immediate flexibility in free agency and spending money to land a couple big free agents if needed.