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State of the Steelers: How to Make More Cap Space for 2022



The 2021 NFL season officially came to a close with the Los Angeles Rams’ victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday night.

With that, the 2022 offseason is on deck, with what is expected to be a slate full of significant changes for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are interviewing candidates for a new general manager, have already replaced defensive coordinator Keith Butler with Teryl Austin, and will spend most of the rest of the offseason with the top priority being replacing retired quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

To start the offseason, Steelers Now is taking a look at the state of the team, from free agency, to the salary cap, to the draft, and the current status of the 90-man offseason roster.

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The Steelers do have some salary cap space available to them as they enter the 2022 offseason, but it is not a franchise-changing amount, as we identified in our previous installment about the salary cap.

One signing of a mediocre quarterback — say Ryan Fitzpatrick — would likely take more than half of the team’s available salary cap space. Taking on the contract of an established starter in the vein of a Kirk Cousins, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan or Russell Wilson would take it all and then some.

But the Steelers aren’t stuck with the amount of salary cap space they enter the offseason with. As Kevin Colbert has demonstrated many time in his tenure as Steelers general manager, it is possible to make more by pushing present salary cap commitments into future seasons.

Just how much more cap space could the Steelers open up, and what avenues do they have to make more room?

The first way to make salary cap space is to restructure contracts. To restructure a contract, a player’s salary for the 2022 season, which is not guaranteed, is converted into a signing bonus and is immediately paid to the player. The cap hit for salary for the 2022 season must be accounted for in the 2022 season, but the cap hit for the signing bonus can be spread out along the length of the contract, a process called proration.

For example, defensive captain Cam Heyward is set to earn $6.5 million in 2022 salary, along with a $4.5 million roster bonus. His contract runs through the end of the 2024 season. If the Steelers restructured his contract and gave him the veteran minimum salary of $1.12 million and made the rest a $9.88 million signing bonus, that signing bonus would be spared over the 2022, 2023 and 2024 seasons.

So Heyward’s salary cap hit could be reduced by $6.6 million in the 2022 season, without Heyward taking any less in pay and while guaranteeing some of the non-guaranteed portions of his contract.

The same could be done for T.J. Watt ($17.2 million), Stephon Tuitt ($5.9 million), Joe Schobert ($5.9 million) and Cameron Sutton ($2.6 million). If the Steelers maximally restructured all five of those contracts, they could add $38.2 million in 2022 salary cap space.

That doesn’t even include void years. 
A void year is a year added to the end of a contract that will automatically void at a certain point in the future. The purpose of a void year is to spread out the impact of a player’s signing bonus even farther.

Using our example above, if Heyward’s $9.88 million signing bonus was spread out over five seasons instead of three, the Steelers could save almost $8 million in 2022 salary cap space. So in theory, the team can make almost as much salary cap space as it wants to at any given time.

Of course, doing that comes with a price to pay later. All of that money still eventually needs accounted for, and pushing the money into future seasons would increase the cap hit of each of those players. Also remember that the future money then becomes guaranteed.

With a player like Heyward or Watt, that the Steelers see as a franchise cornerstone, that doesn’t carry that much risk. But with a player like Tuitt, whose situations is murky after missing the entire 2021 season, and Schobert and Sutton, who were just average starters for the team in 2021, adding guaranteed money to their future commitments might not be the road the team wants to go down.

There are other ways for the the team to reduce its salary cap commitments for 2022 that don’t have the same type of long-term impacts. Some of them are easy.

If the team and Ben Roethlisberger can agree to wait until after June 1 void his contract (which had voidable years added last season), it will save the team $7.755 million in 2022 cap space. Roethlisberger is already retired, so all this does is move money from 2022 to 2023, without adding any additional risk to the team.

Pushing money into the future forever isn’t great, either, but the Steelers should feel confident that the salary cap will rise significantly for 2023. The cap was artificially modified in 2021 to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the NFL and NFLPA made that agreement, they set a maximum amount that the salary cap could rebound to for 2022. This year’s cap ended up being that amount, so it’s likely than an unrestricted 2022 salary cap would have been even higher than the current amount, so another big jump is likely next offseason.

So a move like Roethlisberger’s is likely a pure positive for the Steelers, but unfortunately, that’s fairly one-of-a-kind.

The final way they have to make more salary cap space is to release players that are not performing up to the level of their cap hit. In that regard, the Steelers have several options. Tuitt, Schobert, backup tackle Zach Banner and fullback Derek Watt seem to fall into that category.

If cut before June 1, the Steelers could save $7.8 million by releasing Schobert, $5 million from moving on from Banner, $4.3 million from cutting Tuitt and $2.75 million from dropping Watt.

If they waited until after June 1, the savings from releasing Schobert would rise to $9.25 million and Tuitt to $9.05 million. The difference is that the dead salary cap hit for the prorated signing bonus of the released players would be pushed back a season if the team waits until after June 1.

Like the Roethlisberger situation above, that’s a place where the team can push more present money into the future without any additional risk being taken on, because the players will be released one way or the other.

Trading any of those players, or if Tuitt were to voluntarily retire, would have the same salary cap impact as releasing them.

So while the Steelers do not have a ton of salary cap space at their disposal entering the 2022 offseason, that does not mean that Colbert and company will be completely hamstrung in their decision-making this offseason, either. It just means that choices to add to the team in 2022 could come with additional future commitments or risk.


Full series:

2022 State of the Steelers

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