The Salary Cap
Every year NFL teams are forced to say goodbye to players they would like to keep around because they just don’t have the salary cap space to re-sign them. Pittsburgh is no exception and 2021 could be a tough year for the Steelers. Right now, given the Salary Cap for 2021, the Steelers are going to go into the off-season $18 million into the red. That means to even be able to re-sign any free agents they are going to have to make room under the cap.
To manipulate the salary cap the Steelers have spent years restructuring large contracts. By restructuring a contract a player is able to turn salary into a bonus. That bonus is then prorated over the remaining years of the contract. This process lowers that year’s salary cap hit, but it also increases future years.
Restructuring Ben Roethlisberger’s contract over the years now means that his cap hit for 2021 is over $40 million. That means that Roethlisberger will account for over 20% of the Steelers cap room next season. So, the Steelers will have to get very creative with their salary cap in 2021, but it also means that some of their 15 Unrestricted Free Agents will likely become Salary Cap Casualties and are unlikely to return next season.
This is Part 1 of a multi-part series on possible cap casualties for the 2021 season.
Part 1: Left-Tackle Alejandro Villanueva
Alejandro Villanueva is a great NFL story. He is a former army ranger and United States veteran. He played multiple positions at Army including offensive line, tight end and defensive end. He went undrafted in 2014, but was given NFL tryouts and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles.
During a pre-season game against the Steelers Villanueva was spotted by Mike Tomlin. The Steelers coach was impressed with his size and athleticism. After being cut by the Eagles the Steelers signed Villanueva and he spent the year on their practice squad learning a new position.
He started his NFL career as a defensive lineman, but Pittsburgh was converting him into an offensive lineman. Six years later Villanueva has started 77 games for the Steelers and is currently their starting left tackle.
The problem here is that Villanueva probably has one more multi-year deal left in his NFL career. Also, starting left-tackles in the NFL are not always easy to find. So, Villanueva may just price himself out of Pittsburgh, especially considering the salary cap problems the team is going to have in the off-season.
It is likely that the team will be unable to offer Villanueva the type of money he will find on the open market. It is also likely that the Steelers won’t be interested in offering Villanueva a new contract in the off-season.
So far during the 2020 season Villanueva has been one of the weaker spots on the Steelers offensive line. Now, add in the fact that Pittsburgh had two good young offensive tackles on their roster. Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor battled for the starting right tackle job this off-season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of them move to the left side of the line next season.
Banner is also poised to be a free agent after the season. He, however, does not have 77 NFL starts under his belt and will be coming off of a season-ending knee injury. So, it seems the Steelers would have a much easier time fitting a new contract for him under the cap as opposed to a new deal for Villanueva.
Villanueva is playing his final games in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have a quality group of free agents poised to hit the open market after the season. Many of those players are younger and have less-quality replacements on the roster than Villanueva.
Yes, the team would likely love to keep Villanueva around, but his experience is going to price him out of Pittsburgh. Let’s hope Banner and Okorafor are ready to hold down the offensive line in 2021.