The Pittsburgh Steelers bowed out of the playoffs in unceremonious fashion, losing to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday night, 48-37 to end their once-promising 2020 season.
While many in Steelers Nation might lament that the loss might be the toughest to bear in recent memory, the loss might just be the tip of the pain fans will endure with the Steelers in 2021.
Most of that pain will be caused by the NFL’s salary cap.
The 456-page Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA outlines how revenue gets split between the two parties. A major chunk of the revenue shared between them is ticket sales, concession sales, along with other sales linked to fans attending games in person. These sales have been severely limited because of the pandemic and most seats at stadiums around the country have remained vacant during the 2020 season.
Because of lost revenue, the NFL has set the salary cap floor at $175 million,down from $198.2 million in 2020 and a projected $210 million in 2021. This has put a bind on teams who were counting on the additional salary cap space in 2021.
For years, Steelers have renegotiated the contracts in order to maximize cap space in a given season. While this system kept the team cap compliant for decades, the pandemic-related cap decrease has caused all of that kicking the can down the road to finally catch up with the team.
The team’s cap figure for 2021 currently sits at $204,576,260, give or take. Over the Cap lists a slightly lower figure. Furthermore, Pittsburgh only has 36 players under contract in 2021, and to bring the team back up to a full roster of 53 is going to get expensive. Here’s the full tab, in addition to the $29.6 million they’re already over the cap.
• 2021 NFL draft class: $7,528,342
• Eight players to get to the offseason rule of 51 at $660,000 each (minimum): $5,280,000
• 51st and 52nd players: $1,320,000
• 2021 practice squad: $1,400,000
• 2020 carryover (unspent 2020 cap space): -$6,000,000
All told, the Steelers will need to trim nearly $40 million from their current salary commitments for 2021. Compounding those cap issues will be the 19 players headed for unrestricted free agency that includes nine starters.
When and how will the 2020 AFC North champs need to get cap compliant? It’s going to be difficult. The relief via restructuring of contracts that helped cause the current cap crunch is only available for a handful of returning players and nowhere near enough to overcome the current cap deficit.
The With such little cap space that can be kicked down the road from 2021 contracts, the Steelers front office will have their hands full to get cap compliant by the first day of the league year, which is March 17. Steelers fans should circle St. Patrick’s Day on their calendars, and not just for green beer.
The pain of losing will not end with the stunning loss to the Browns. Tough decisions will have to be made regarding the roster. Some players will almost certainly have to be let go or pushed out, and there seems little chance the team can re-sign any of its high-value free agents or bring in others of note from the outside.