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. These restructures result in Roethlisberger accounting 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 3 of a multi-part series on possible cap casualties for the 2021 season.
Part 3 – Running Back James Conner
Pittsburgh is in a tough spot. They are entering the off-season already $18 million over the salary cap. That is not a position any team hopes to be in, and it will likely result in some tough decisions. One of those decisions will be whether or not to re-sign running back James Conner, who’s rookie contract ends after the season.
Conner is in his fourth season with the Steelers. Over the past eight years, Conner has played for Pittsburgh and had his home games at Heinz Field. Four years with the Pitt Panthers and now four more with the Steelers. This, along with the fact Conner also has one of the greatest stories in the NFL, makes him a beloved figure in Pittsburgh:
Those intangibles, unfortunately, aren’t going to be paying the bills. Pittsburgh has shown reluctance in giving big contracts to running backs; a trend that is more common in the current NFL. Not every team in the NFL, however, is scared to pony up for a quality runner. That could price Conner out of Pittsburgh depending on what kind of deal he is looking for.
Another major factor in retaining Conner versus letting him walk via free agency comes down to the other backs on the roster. Benny Snell has had a quality start to the 2020 season and should continue to see touches throughout the year. Change-of-pace back Anthony McFarland, a rookie out of Maryland, is expected to be featured more in the offense as the season continues. McFarland and Snell are both under contract beyond 2020, which gives the Steelers options if Conner isn’t back.
These two young running backs; along with the ability to draft another back make Conner more expendable than other players. Sure, I would love to see Conner continue his career in Pittsburgh, but it all comes down to the numbers. If he is looking for a big pay-day it will likely come from another team.
Don’t be surprised if this is the end of Conner’s run in Pittsburgh. Just like LeVeon Bell before him; it’s unlikely the Steelers pay big for a running back given their salary cap situation. I fully expect the Steelers to move forward with a combination of Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland.
That’s not to say I’m not a fan of Conner, but the Steelers salary cap situation this off-season is a tricky one. If it were up to me I would be much more inclined to hand out a large contract to Bud Dupree or Juju Smith-Schuster. Depending on how much cap space the Steelers can free up they may only be able to retain one of those three players. I find it unlikely they would choose Conner over Dupree or Smith-Schuster if it comes down to that.
Final verdict: Conner receivers more money elsewhere. The Steelers choose to focus their attention on defense and the development of their soon-to-be young offensive line. If the young players along the offensive line can open running lanes it won’t matter who is running through them.