The 2019 NFL regular season is now almost halfway over as Week 9 gets underway Thursday night. Because we’re now roughly at the halfway point of the regular season, it’s a prefect time to take a quick look ahead at the Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 salary cap situation to see where the team is not only currently at, but what kind of moves may or may not be made moving forward.
Projecting this far out is tough, but when it comes to the Steelers we have a long history of how they have handled their salary cap, free agents and offseason cuts to work with. Because if that, I’m fairly confident in the accuracy of a lot of the things I have written below. Sure, several things can and will change and won’t be exact between now and March of 2020, but I believe you’ll be able to use the numbers and speculation below as a good guideline nonetheless. I have a great track record with projecting these kind of things.
First, we need to look at where the Steelers currently sit related to their 2020 salary cap situation and below is table that includes the players under contract for next season as of October 31 as well as the dead money that’s currently on the books for next season. Some of the data below is provided by Over the Cap and former NFL agent Joel Corry, currently of CBS Sports. A lot of the other data was compiled from the NFLPA salary cap page. While a few of my contract numbers might not match those on other sites, those that don’t have been matched to league data.
The 2020 NFL salary cap is currently projected to be $200 million and obviously that not being the final number leaves some small room for overall and ultimate space projections. Remember, the numbers below are current contract numbers of the 42 players currently under contract for 2020. Everything else is projections.
Steelers 2020 Salary Cap Snapshot As Of 10/31/19
Real-time totals: The Steelers currently have 42 players under contract for 2020 and those cap charges total out at $198,586,255. The dead money currently on the books for 2020 is $818,962. Those two totals added together produce a current cap liability total of $199,405,217, which is just under the estimated $200 million salary cap number. You will see that I have rounded out the table above with nine minimum salary placeholders for 2020 to get an estimated Rule of 51. That estimated Rule of 51 total is $203,995,217, or nearly $4 million more than the $200 million projected 2020 salary cap number.
2019 salary cap space carryover: According to the NFLPA on October 31, the Steelers have $3,462,566 in available 2019 salary cap space and whatever is available at the end of the season will be carried over to 2020. $3 million might end up being the amount that’s rolled over based on my projections at the midway point of the 2019 regular season. Regardless, this number will change and thus likely drop some between now and the end of the 2019 regular season.
Three easy offseason cuts: Wide receiver Donte Moncrief could be gone as early as next week as the team is calculated to recoup a 2020 third-round compensatory draft pick in doing so. Even if Moncrief is retained the remainder of this season, he’s almost sure to be gone by next March. Cutting Moncrief frees up $4 million in 2020 salary cap space. Outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo and inside linebacker Mark Barron are two other current Steelers under contract for 2020 who are almost certain to be gone by next March. Cutting both would free up $10.25 million in 2020 salary cap space. Combined, cutting Moncrief, Chickillo and Barron by the start of the new league year in March would free up a much-needed $14.25 million in 2020 salary cap space prior to roster displacement.
Foster & Alualu decisions: I’m not ready to advocate the Steelers parting ways with guard Ramon Foster and defensive end Tyson Alualu next offseason, however, such discussions probably need to be had immediately after the 2019 season ends and especially when it comes to the latter. Foster is set to earn $4 million in 2020 and Alualu is set to earn $2.75 million. Technically, those two players have extremely low salaries based on their experience and what they offer the team so that’s why the discussions to cut either would be difficult ones to have. Alualu is the easier of the two to cut because he’s a backup and also because young defensive end Isaiah Buggs should be expected to fill his shoes in 2020 at a much lower cost. Cutting Foster could potentially result in the Steelers keeping center/guard B.J. Finney in 2020 and beyond as he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March of 2020. If Finney is kept, it will likely be with him being the new starting left guard. See the predicament?
Heyward extension: Currently, defensive lineman Cameron Heyward is scheduled to count $13,251,250 against the 2020 salary cap with $3,751,250 of that being past bonus proration. 2020 is also currently set to be Heyward’s final year of his current contract so an extension getting done in the early spring is a possibility. Signing Heyward to a contract extension at fair market value could realistically produce a 2020 salary cap savings of around $3 million.
Villanueva extension: 2020 is also currently scheduled to be the final contract year for left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. His base salary is set to be a disgustingly cheap $5 million. He is extremely underpaid and the Steelers should rectify that during the offseason. Depending on the amount of years added, a fair market extension for Villanueva would likely result in his 2020 cap charge slightly increasing or decreasing as it’s already scheduled to be $8.39 million.
Smith-Schuster & Conner extensions: Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner will both be ripe for contract extensions at some point during the offseason. Smith-Schuster is sure to get top ten money for his position and that will result in his 2020 salary cap charge increasing. What about Conner? The running back market might have a huge gap in it come March as a few of the bigger names might be cut by then. Conner has had a few injury issues so far during his career as well. His contract extension talks will be interesting to watch play out next offseason due to several variables that make his market value sort of cloudy as we sit here halfway through the 2019 regular season. Keep in mind that Conner should qualify for the Proven Performance Escalator so that means his 2020 salary will be about $2.144 million pending an extension.
Which unrestricted free agents will be re-signed?: The Steelers traded for tight end Nick Vannett this season and one would think they would like to keep him a few more years. He’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 as is the aforementioned Finney. Both Vannett and Finney can likely be retained. However, a few other bigger named unrestricted free agents such as outside linebacker Bud Dupree and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave will both likely be allowed to ride off to other teams in March. Obviously, cornerback Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end L.T. Walton are a few other 2020 unrestricted free agents unlikely to be re-signed. If inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich is re-signed, it will only be for the minimum so there’s no sense worrying about that right now.
Restricted and exclusive rights tenders: You can bet that the Steelers are likely to offer restricted free agent tenders to tackle Matt Feiler, tackle Zach Banner, cornerback Mike Hilton and long snapper Kameron Canaday and a few of those might wind up being at a second-round level, which is currently projected to be around $3.278 million. Even the low right-of-first refusal restricted tender is projected to be around $2.144 million. Any of the available exclusive rights free agents, as usual, can easily be retained with minimum salary tenders. Right now, safety Kameron Kelly looks to be the only real candidate for such.
Restructures?: The Steelers might be forced to restructure the contract of defensive end Stephon Tuitt again during the offseason and hope that he can finish out the remaining years healthy. A maximum Tuitt restructure would free up $5,453,333 in 2020 salary cap space. The Steelers could also free up another $9,977,500 in 2020 salary cap space by fully restructuring the contract of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Doing so, however, would set him up to have a monster cap charge in 2021, the final year of his contract. It would be a giant can being kicked down the road. Guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey both might be contract restructure candidates as well if push comes to shove. Roethlisberger has a $12.5 million roster bonus due in March, so we’ll find out quickly if he’ll be restructured.
Practice squad: In 2020 players on the practice squad will earn $8,400 a week so times that by ten and then by 17 and you get a placeholder amount of $1.428 million. This is a real cost that needs to be accounted for.
52nd and 53rd roster spots plus workout bonuses: Let’s go ahead and assume these final two roster spots go to minimum salaried players so that’s another $1.02 million that needs to be accounted for. Additionally, roughly another $750,000 needs to be budgeted for offseason workout bonuses.
Rookie draft pick pool displacement: It’s hard to estimate how much the Steelers will need in extra in salary cap space to sign their draft picks and undrafted free agents this far out. That said, with the Steelers not currently having a first-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, go ahead and budget around $1.5 million in needed salary cap space to sign everyone after roster displacement takes place.
In-season cap space: Be prepared for the Steelers to go into the 2020 regular season with roughly $6 million in unused salary cap space to have in case they need it for in-season trades or injury replacements. This is pretty standard and thus $6 million is a real cost that needs to be accounted for.
Summary: As you can see, the Steelers will be up against the 2020 salary cap and that’s really not all that usual for the team. If you have dreams about the Steelers re-signing Hargrave or Dupree, I probably just managed to completely crush them with this post. Additionally, do not expect the Steelers to be relevant players in free agency once again in 2020 and certainly nowhere close to 2019 levels. If they sign any unrestricted free agents, they will be extremely cheap ones and essentially role players, not starters.
Closing: This posts should give a great snapshot of what 2020 looks like for the Steelers from a salary cap perspective. We’ll revisit these projections much later on in the season to see how much has changed. Alex Kozora and I will also be discussing this post on the Friday episode of The Terrible Podcast as well.