It has been nearly two months since the Steelers surprisingly released starting cornerback Steven Nelson in a move that general manger Kevin Colbert said was motivated solely by a need to trim space under the salary cap.
In two months, not much has changed.
Nelson, 28, remains on the free agent market, despite reports of more than a dozen teams being interested in signing the former Chiefs and Steelers starter.
Part of that is likely because there aren’t a lot of teams that have the cap space to make signing Nelson at something approaching his expected salary viable. According to OvertheCap.com, less than half of the league has enough cap space to sign Nelson to something approaching his former deal, and of course, many of them do not have a need at the cornerback position at this late date on the calendar.
The Steelers, on the other hand, have done just about nothing to replace the losses of both Nelson and starting Nickel back Mike Hilton from the team this offseason, with just undrafted free agents Shakur Brown and Mark Gilbert joining the cornerback room thus far.
The Steelers are tight up against the salary cap, with Steelers Now estimating less than $4 million of usable salary cap space remaining, and the team likes to go into the season with nearly that much in reserve.
That is, after all, the reason that Colbert gave for the team releasing Nelson.
“In Steve Nelson’s case, Steve was a valuable player for us,” Colbert said is his pre-draft press conference. “However, we had to make some tough salary cap related decisions that I mentioned earlier. Steve Nelson is a starter-capable NFL corner. We just couldn’t keep him under the current setup that we had or the current setup that we’re dealing with from a salary cap standpoint, and we had to make some tough choices.”
The Steelers also released linebacker Vince Williams in similar fashion. Williams, however, eventually decided to return to Pittsburgh on a reduced contract.
It’s worth seeing if a similar deal could be reached with Nelson, who said he was never approached about playing under a reduced contract before his release.
“It came down to me being traded, or being released, and I just want to make it very clear, to those out there who might not know, or assuming, that there was never a discussion with me being able to take a pay cut,” Nelson said in April, while also adding that he wanted to sign a long-term extension to stay in Pittsburgh.
Now, the odds of Nelson getting that long-term contract seem slim. Players still on the market late into the free agent period rarely get big money, with teams with the biggest needs having already met them elsewhere, and the reduced salary cap because of the pandemic keeping many teams from entering the free agent market altogether.
Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster saw that writing on the wall when he took less money to return to the Steelers on a one-year deal just four days into free agency, let alone two months.
It seems likely that Nelson will be forced to settle for a deal like Smith-Schuster’s — a one-year deal worth about $8 million.
The Steelers could afford such a contract if they used the same voidable-years technique they did with Smith-Schuster, Ben Roethlisberger and others. They could obviously make such a deal with any available player, but the cornerback market doesn’t currently possess another player with Nelson’s talent level and experience.
At 28, Nelson doesn’t have many long-term contracts left in his NFL career, and his next one will likely be his last real chance at a huge payday. That means it’s pretty important that wherever he signs this summer, he’s able to have a successful season this fall.
OTAs have already started league-wide, with the Steelers getting theirs underway next week. If Nelson waits much longer to sign, not only will he be picking up a new defense, he’ll be doing so with limited learning opportunities.
It seems that the best way for Nelson to maximize his 2022 income would be to go to a place where he’s already familiar with the scheme, knows he can have success and can pick up right where he left off in 2020, when he was the No. 36 cornerback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
There may still be another team out there that has the room under the cap and the need at corner to pull the trigger on a long-term deal for Nelson, and if that’s the case, he should jump at the chance.
But if it’s going to be a one-year contract, both sides would likely benefit from him returning to Pittsburgh this fall.