Despite a tight salary cap situation, the Pittsburgh Steelers have remained active in the free agent market.
In addition to re-signing wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and defensive tackle Chris Wormley, the Steelers signed external free agents linebacker Miles Killebrew, offensive lineman Joe Haeg and wide receiver Tyler Simmons.
It was also reported on Friday that the Steelers are looking to trade starting cornerback Steven Nelson for salary cap purposes.
So how dire is the Steelers’ cap situation as the team enters the first week of free agency?
According to Steelers Now analysis and salary figures from the NFLPA, OvertheCap.com and various other sources, the team has approximately $1.54 million of salary cap space following the signings of Haeg, Killebrew, Simmons and Smith-Schuster.
Haeg, who signed a two-year deal, will count for $1.5 million toward the team’s 2021 cap. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Killebrew’s signing is for the veteran minimum, which will be $990,000. Simmons’ contract as a street free agent is not expected to crack the team’s top 51 offseason salaries.
The Steelers have been able to fit so many signings under the 2021 salary cap thanks to the use of voidable years, which the team first did with the extension and restructuring of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s contract, and has since utilized with Smith-Schuster and cornerback Cam Sutton.
The voidable years mean that Sutton will count for just $1.7 million and $5.2 million in 2022, with $2.1 million pushed in 2023 after his contract has expired. Smith-Schuster will count for $2.4 million in 2021, with $5.6 million in dead money added to 2022.
The multi-year contracts of Sutton, Wormley and tackle Zach Banner are also back-loaded to minimize the impact on 2021. By creatively financing those contracts, the Steelers have been able to make additions without exceeding the salary cap.
So why trade Nelson? While the Steelers are currently under the salary cap threshold, only the top 51 contracts count in the offseason. They will need to add the final two players to the 53-man roster, as well as the entire practice squad, before the season. The team will also need approximately $2 million to sign its 2021 NFL Draft class.
The Steelers also usually like to go into the season with some wiggle room when it comes to cap space, so while they’re currently just under the limit, all of that adds up to needing another at least $4 million this offseason.
Part of that could certainly include trading Nelson, though the team could also restructure the contracts of defensive end Stephon Tuitt and kicker Chris Boswell, or extend the contract of Nelson or another veteran on an expiring deal such as cornerback Joe Haden, guard David DeCastro or tight end Eric Ebron.