Not coincidentally, on Friday Adam Schefter of ESPN also reported that the Steelers have given starting cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.
In other words, the Steelers have apparently decided that Nelson—entering the last year of a three-year contract he signed in 2019—is going to be the player who departs to make room for Smith-Schuster’s contract.
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The Cost of Parting Ways With Steven Nelson
Losing Nelson would be an unfortunate development for the Steelers, as he’s been a very effective starter since signing a three-year $25.5 million deal in free agency two years ago—the most expensive UFA acquisition in franchise history. In fact, Pro Football focus has him tied as the 11th best cornerback in the NFL over that time period, and during the last offseason PFF referred to Nelson as Pittsburgh’s ‘most underrated player.’
Yet he also has the fourth-highest salary cap hit on the team this season at $14.42 million, behind QB Ben Roethlisberger, CB Joe Haden and defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt—and just ahead of right guard David DeCastro, who is set to count $14,297,500.
The hope is that the Steelers will be able to get a draft pick for him in a trade, which seems reasonably likely, considering that his 2021 base salary is $8.25 million, relatively affordable for a quality starting cornerback.
If the Steelers trade or release Nelson, that will save his $8.25 million salary, but it will also trigger a ‘dead money’ cap hit of $6.17 million for 2021, adding to a fast-growing pile of ‘dead money’ that the Steelers will be absorbing this year, thanks to the retirements of center Maurkice Pouncey and tight end Vance McDonald, plus the $3,031,668 hit triggered by the release of inside linebacker Vince Williams.
Pittsburgh’s Cornerback Room in 2021
If Steven Nelson is released or traded, veteran Joe Haden—who is entering the last year of his contract, too—figures to remain the No. 1 cornerback. There would likely be an open competition for the other starting cornerback slot, with recently re-signed CB Cameron Sutton the probable front-runner in that race.
The Steelers also have former third-round pick Justin Layne in the fold, who head coach Mike Tomlin praised prior to the 2020 season, yet he failed to take a step forward during the 2020 campaign. Meanwhile, a dark horse candidate to play a greater role in the Steelers secondary in 2021 is 6-foot-2 cornerback James Pierre, who made the 53-man roster last year after signing with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic University. Last year Pierre appeared in all 16 regular season games and contributed 10 tackles (seven solo). He was in on 50% of the team’s special teams snaps but just 3% of the snaps on defense.
If the Steelers go forward without Nelson they would likely select a cornerback at some point in the 2021 Draft, as there would be a roster spot available for a No. 5 cornerback.
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