PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers and general manager Kevin Colbert have some work to do with what’s left of the 2021 offseason in order to get lock up one of their top defensive players.
T.J. Watt is set to become a free agent for the first time in his career after the 2021 season, and if the Steelers want to get a long-term deal worked out with the two-time All-Pro, they only have about six weeks left to do so.
That’s not a new phenomenon for the Steelers — after all, their no-negotiations-in-season rule is of their own creation.
What is new is the level of uncertainty surrounding the NFL salary cap. The cap suffered an unprecedented drop for 2021 because of a pandemic-impacted 2020 season that significantly reduced league revenues.
The hope is that revenues in 2021 will rebound, and along with a new media rights contract signed by the NFL, that should make for a big salary cap increase in 2022. But how much it will increase is still a major unknown.
“We think we know where the cap will go,” Colbert said on Tuesday. “We’re hopeful that it does. Can we make certain players fit within that group? We always will do a deal based on what it does to us in 2021. We try to project what it will do to us three years down the road, and that’s not unique, other than us not knowing what that new amount will be. We think we know what it is. We’ve been given a floor, but we don’t know where it will go, so we’re just doing the best we can.”
Colbert declined to discuss specifics of the team’s negotiations with Watt, but the salary cap issues might make those negations complicated.
The Steelers have limited cap space for the 2021 season, so a new contract for Watt that goes into effect immediately might put them right up against the limit this fall. The team has plenty of space for 2022, and in fact has the least amount of salary cap commitments for that season in the NFL.
But it’s difficult to work within the Steelers’ usual contract structure and make a contract with a small hit in the first year and a bigger hit in following years, while giving players what they really want, which is a significant amount of guaranteed money.
For the Steelers, that has traditionally come in the form of signing bonuses, but those must be spread out evenly over the length of contracts, making a first-year bubble that could hurt the Steelers right now.