We have all fallen for it. Kevin Colbert has been lauded for his manipulation of the salary cap. He has redone several contracts allowing the team to franchise Bud Dupree, and sign a few free agents. On the surface this all sounds great work by the Steelers GM. The team is primed to make a serious run at the Super Bowl. But what happens to the Steelers in 2021?
This is where the main problem for the 2021 Steelers lies. As you can see from this chart from Spotrac, there are several key players due to become free agents next season. https://www.spotrac.com/
Those players include Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree, TJ Watt, and Ju Ju Smith Schuster just to name a few. Now you’d think that the team would have tons of cap space with all these impending free agents. That is not the case however. The Pittsburgh Steelers only have roughly $56 million to spend in 2021.
The Steelers have mortgaged their future in a sense, so they can fill out the team this year. The number one example of this is the restructure of Ben Roehtlisberger’s contract. He now has a whopping $41.25 million cap hit in 2021. This problem will only compound itself if Roehtlisberger fails to stay healthy. He is not the only older player with a large cap hit in 2021. Between Ben, Maurkice Pouncey, and David DeCastro, Pittsburgh has over $60 million tied up in players over the age of 30.
Fifty six million under the cap may sound like a lot, but its really not. Just a new deal for TJ Watt alone will almost certainly take up $20 million of that. Throw in new contracts for Smith Schuster and Bud Dupree, and now you’ve essentially eaten up the rest of that cap space. What happens to names like Cam Heyward, Joe Haden, and James Conner to name a few. What about key contributors like Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler, and Alejandro Villanueva who are all up after this season?
The team could cut both Roethlisberger and Pouncey, saving roughly $27 million. In that case you would be able to get most of the key players back, but have the prospect of Mason Rudolph as the starting quarterback. Not exactly how you’d want to start a new season.
So does Kevin Colbert and company use this year’s draft to anticipate replacing key 2021 free agents? With only six overall picks, and only two in the top 110, it will be extremely difficult to pull that off. Under this scenario, the team will almost certainly be looking for a center at pick 49. Start grooming Pouncey’s replacement, and then be able to save roughly $7 million for next year. Follow that up with a running back in the 3rd round so they can let James Conner walk. Or try to find a wide receiver in the third to replace Ju Ju Smith Schuster.
What if Tua Tagovailoa or Jordan Love start to fall to the end of the first round? Would Kevin Colbert be enticed to trade up so he can save the $19 million on Ben Roethlisberger’s contract come next season? Whatever the case, the 2020 draft is almost certainly going to be affected by the salary cap situation in the following year.
Coaching and the Front Office:
The question here is who out of this group will be back for 2021? We know by now that Kevin Colbert is on a year to year basis with the team. Tomlin is signed through 2021, but that would make him a lame duck coach without any extension. There is a not so crazy scenario where neither of these two is back for next season. Both men have been with the organization for a long time, and regardless of what happens they could be looking for a new path in 2021.
We have been questioning for some time on this site what exactly are the team’s plans beyond the 2020 season. Are the Steelers blowing it up after the 2020 season?
This franchise has been dead set on making one last run with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Everything they have done over the past two years has been geared towards squeezing everything possible out of their franchise quarterback. It has a real chance to work out if he stays healthy combined with the now dominant defense they have built.
What happens after this season though? What happens if Roethlisberger can’t stay healthy, or isn’t the same quarterback he was even if healthy?? This is the ultimate “go for broke” move by the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s a risky strategy to put all your faith into a 38 year old quarterback coming off major arm surgery. A strategy that could spell disaster for the Steelers in 2021 and beyond.