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What Would Salary Cap Impacts of Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster Returns Be?

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Ben Roethlisberger is expected to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2021 season, NFL Network reported on Saturday, and furthermore, he reportedly wants JuJu Smith-Schuster to return along with him.

With the Steelers already over the expected 2021 salary cap, that could be a very difficult to work for the Pittsburgh front office.

Roethlisberger is scheduled to count $41 million against the Steelers’ salary cap, while Smith-Schuster has an estimated market value north of $15 million.

It’s possible that one or both players would take an extremely team-friendly deal in order to facilitate their combined return, but if not, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the rest of the 2021 season.

As Steelers Now analyst Flip Fisher broke down last week, if the salary cap comes in at the baseline figure of $175 million, the Steelers will need to clear nearly $40 million from their existing 2021 payroll obligations.

If Roethlisberger plays at his full cap hit, and Smith-Schuster signs for $15 million, that would mean that $65 million would need to be cut elsewhere.

The Steelers will almost certainly restructure the contracts of defensive linemen Cam Heyward (saving $7 million), Stephon Tuitt (saving $4 million) and Chris Boswell (saving $1 million), no matter what.

But that won’t get them even close. To fit Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster in, that would also mean releasing Joe Haden ($12.6 million), David DeCastro ($8.75 million), Steven Nelson ($8.25 million), Maurkice Pouncey ($8 million), Eric Ebron ($6 million), Vance McDonald ($5.2 million), Vince Williams ($4 million), and Derek Watt ($1.6 million).

Obviously, that’s not tenable.

But even if Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster were to sign extremely team-friendly deals, the situation looks bleak.

If Roethlisberger plays for the veteran minimum of $1.05 million and forgoes the entire rest of his $19 million salary, he’ll still carry another $22 million in cap hit from deferred signing bonus that can’t be moved. That would reduce the cap overage by just over $18 million, saving Pouncey and DeCastro, Haden and Willams, or however else you want to divide it up.

Even if Roethlisberger plays for the minimum and Smith-Schuster signs an extremely team-friendly deal, say for $5 million instead of $15 million, that’s still not even half the total overage.

Now, the cap could come in at a higher figure than the bottom-line $175 million, but figure won’t be know for sure until March. But the cap is expected to decrease from its current $198.2 million, thanks to the significant revenue loss around the NFL due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the bottom line is that if Roethlisberger wants to come back and he wants a talented team full of weapons around him, that’s going to necessitate playing for a bare minimum salary in 2021.

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