Creating a playoff-contending NFL roster is a money game, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are very good at it, thanks to cap guru-turned-general manager Omar Khan. The Steelers have been in more dire financial straits than in 2023, but they’re certainly up against it.
As of February 26, Pittsburgh has $11,418 in cap space (total cap liabilities plus top 51 players), placing them 19th in the league, according to OvertheCap.com. That’s pennies compared to teams like the Chicago Bears ($98 million) or the Las Vegas Raiders ($48 million), and not nearly enough to sign anyone. But there are a number of directions that the Steelers can realistically go in to create salary cap space.
With a handful of moves, Pittsburgh can clear an estimated $65 million off the books. Doing so would give the team breathing room to re-sign defensive backs Cameron Sutton and Terrell Edmunds, linebacker Alex Highsmith and potentially defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to long-term deals. They also have incoming rookies that need paying this spring.
Steelers 2023 Offseason Salary Cap Savers
One of the easiest ways to make salary cap room is by restructuring the contracts of multi-year players. The top two candidates for restructures are on the defensive side of the ball: Edge rusher T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Reworking the contract of Watt, who signed a four-year, $112 million extension in 2021, would save the Steelers $12.6 million. He’s currently due $20 million or 12.8 percent of the cap, per OvertheCap.com. The Steelers saved $6.75 million restructuring his contract in 2022. Doing the same for Fitzpatrick, who signed a four-year, $73.6 million extension in 2022, would create savings of $10 million.
Less realistic options are to rework Diontae Johnson and Cam Heyward’s contracts to save a total of $12 million and change. But they each only have two years left, and the Steelers will have to cough up the bucks sooner than later. The team could also save with a Heyward extension, but he’s turning 34 in May, and there’s no telling how much longer he’ll want to play.
The main con with restructuring is while it’s a short-term fix, it comes at a long-term cost. The team kicks the can down the road, dividing the cap hit and spreading it across the life of the contract. But it could snowball and bite the team in the butt with a huge cap hit, as it did in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s final year.
Steelers 2023 Offseason Cut Candidates Include QB Mitch Trubisky
One of the biggest debates this offseason is what the Pittsburgh Steelers should do with quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Many feel that the $10.62 million cap hit is too steep for a guy who could be riding the pine all season. Since only $2.6 million of the hit is guaranteed, the Steelers could save $8 million by cutting (or trading) him before June 1.
A handful of more affordable serviceable backup prospects, including Gardner Minshew and Andy Dalton, are impending free agents. However, with Mason Rudolph likely headed elsewhere this offseason, cutting Trubisky would only put the Steelers in a pickle behind Kenny Pickett. And given the young QBs already concerning concussion history, who Pittsburgh has in the reserve role will be important.
Releasing inside linebacker Myles Jack, whose cap hit skyrockets from $4.8 million to $11.3 million in 2023, could also spare $8 million ($3.3 million dead cap hit). But he played decently when healthy last season, and Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Marcus Allen could all hit free agency. Keeping and perhaps extending Jack might be the wiser move while the Steelers devise a more long-term plan at inside linebacker.
Other Candidates for Release by Steelers
Cutting loose cornerback William Jackson III is a near given. He was put on injured reserve with a back injury two weeks after being traded to Pittsburgh from the Washington Commanders at the November 1 trade deadline in 2022. Since Mike Tomlin seems high on Jackson, if released, he could always find his way back to Pittsburgh at a much-reduced rate than the $12.2 million he’s owed.
Finally, releasing cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and right tackle Chuks Okorafor could save the Steelers a combined $11 million in cap space. Witherspoon seems more likely, as the team didn’t miss a beat during Witherspoon’s 13-game absence (hamstring). And while Okorafor hasn’t played up to the $13 million cap hit the Steelers will endure, he is the better of the two tackles.
Not all of these moves will be made, but expect some.