Will ‘COVID-19 Adjustments’ Make Cap Hell Inevitable for Steelers?

Ben-Roethlisberger

Joe Sargent/Getty Images Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.

In a recent article for The Athletic, Mark Kaboly advanced the notion that cap hell appears imminent for Steelers. Kaboly stopped just short of calling it an impossible situation, but says “it would be stunning” if the Pittsburgh Steelers can get to next season without a “significant chunk” taken out of the team’s roster.

Here’s why:

According to Around the NFL writer Nick Shook, on Friday the NFL and NFLPA reached agreement on a variety of ‘COVID-19 Adjustments’ to the collective bargaining agreement. One of those adjustments was to “spread the impact of any 2020 revenue shortfall due to the pandemic over four years beginning in 2021.”

As part of that, the salary cap could be set as low as $175 million in 2021, as compared to $198 million in 2020. That’s $23 million less, an 11.7 percent reduction in a year in which the Steelers—and all other NFL teams—were expecting the salary cap to rise to something north of $200 million.

While it’s possible that the revenue shortfall won’t be as severe as anticipated (in which case the cap could be higher than $175 million in 2020), that seems unlikely, considering that attendance at games will be very limited, assuming there are fans—or games—at all.

And if the cap is set at $175 million or thereabouts, the Steelers will be among a group of eight or ten NFL teams that will experience particularly acute challenges, a list that includes the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs.


Steelers Cap Space with a $175 Million Cap

Overthecap.com provides a rough indicator of how things will look for the Steelers and all other NFL teams if the cap is set at $175 million in 2021. As you can see, the Steelers would be approximately $15.83 million underwater if they were able to carry over their current estimated cap space. But the situation isn’t anywhere near that rosy, because that figure doesn’t count necessary expenditures like the signing of next year’s draft choices.

With a $175 million cap, you can forget about the Steelers adding players in free agency—or signing their own free agents to contract extensions. The organization would likely need to restructure some contracts and release a handful of current Steelers just to become cap compliant. Players like tight ends Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron could be cut in an effort to save significant money at select positions.

Meanwhile, all or nearly all of the following pending unrestricted free agents—Cam Heyward, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Bud Dupree, James Conner, Matt Feiler, Alejandro Villanueva, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton and Zach Banner—could move on to teams that are currently in good shape salary-cap wise, including the Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals.


The Ben Roethlisberger Factor

But a big factor in terms of how the organization approaches next year and beyond will be the play of Ben Roethlisberger, who has two years remaining on his contract. If Roethlisberger plays like an elite QB in 2020, the Steelers could choose to add another year onto his deal and significantly reduce his scheduled 2021 cap hit, which currently stands at $41.5 million. That would help them somewhat in terms of player retention for 2021, but delay a massive cap cost.

Or, if Roethlisberger’s elbow or age prohibits Big Ben from returning to form in 2020, the team could choose to part ways with him after this year, which would save $19 million against the 2020 cap, but also throw $22 million in dead money onto their cap—even more than the $21.1 million in dead money the Steelers carried in 2019 as a result of the Antonio Brown trade. In that scenario the Steelers would probably not be a playoff contending team in 2021, but could use that season to try to re-position themselves for a bright future in 2022 and beyond.


4 Compensatory Draft Picks in 2022?

If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that an exodus of free agents from Pittsburgh could result in the Steelers getting up to 4 compensatory draft choices in 2022, which could help re-stock the roster at reasonable cost—or provide added ammunition to trade up in the draft for a potential franchise QB.

For starters, Cam Heyward, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Bud Dupree and Matt Feiler could command the kind of big-money contracts that might result in a couple third-round picks coming the Steelers’ way, with a few other compensatory picks likely coming later in the draft.

The bad news is that a team can collect no more than four compensatory picks, so if the Steelers lost, say, seven free agents and signed zero, four compensatory selections would still be the max.

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