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Cap Casualty Candidates: Steelers have contracts to move, but still pushing against cap

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NFL: DEC 29 Steelers at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s time for part three of our look at cap casualty candidates around the NFL and asking whether or not they’d be of interest to the LA Chargers. Previously, on Cap Casualties: the Jacksonville Jaguars have the most work to do, while the Minnesota Vikings could solve most of their issues with a Kirk Cousins trade.

And today, what are the Pittsburgh Steelers going to do to stay under the cap and still fix an offense that kept its elite defense out of the postseason?

By the end of the second game of the season, the Steelers lost starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the remainder of the year, the first time that had ever happened in his career. Roethlisberger missed four games in 2005, four games in 2010, four games in 2015, and now 14 games in 2019. In those previous instances, Pittsburgh went 3-1, 3-1, and 2-2 in his absence. This time they were 0-2 in his starts and 8-6 without him, but they really needed to go 10-4 or better.

The Steelers were 8-5 headed into the stretch and could have been almost at the same record as the Kansas City Chiefs in spite of starting Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback; and during those last three games, they ducked any shot at a win that flew at them. Pittsburgh scored 30 points over the final three, exactly 10 in each game. The Steelers didn’t score more than 27 in any game all season, and that 27 came against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Miami Dolphins. They did manage a touchdown in every game since Week 1’s 33-3 loss to the New England Patriots, but it was not often enough more points than their opponent despite an 8-2 run in the middle of the year.

And now they have no cap room with which to improve through free agency. Unless they make some cuts.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Effective 2020 Cap Space: $1,430,975

2020 Contract Commitments: 63

Biggest Savings: Part ways with Big Ben, $8.5 million

It is improbable to expect Roethlisberger to be cut, traded, or even to retire since he hasn’t indicated anything but a return. He carries a $33.5 million cap hit with $25 million in dead money if he goes anywhere, which is quite a lot for a 38-year-old who has posted a passer rating of 95 over the previous four seasons. That ranks Roethlisberger 10th in rating at that time, which is fine, but really more of an average mark these days.

Flawed as rating is, show me any stat that shows that Roethlisberger should be the second-highest paid QB of 2020.

Still, this is their option. They don’t have a backup of note, as we’ve been proven, and they don’t have any money. They very likely must get Ben to move some money around and that will save something, but I couldn’t predict what that money movement will look like. What’s next?

Maurkice Pouncey, C, $11 million cap hit, $5 million saved if released

Are the Steelers really going to part ways with a center who has made the Pro Bowl in all eight seasons of his career in which he played in more than one game? (Pouncey missed 15 games in 2013 and all of 2015.) A 31-year-old two-time first team All-Pro who peers clearly still see as elite?

It may be another indication that peers are not always the best judges of their peers.

Pouncey ranked near the bottom of the NFL for centers over at PFF, and Steelers Depot was confident that the issues were not just related to the absence of Ben:

Contrasting against the message that Mike Tomlin attempted to convey, the issues in his snaps were not limited to simply not working with Ben Roethlisberger, with whom he had built such a rapport over the course of the past decade. He simply botched a whole bunch of snaps this year, and it’s really quite baffling.

And now he likely finishes the season injured, suffering a knee injury in the middle of the Steelers’ loss on Sunday against the New York Jets. While it may prove to be less severe than it initially appeared it could potentially be—watching his knee buckle as he walked off the field was a scary sight—chances are he’s not going to be taking any more snaps this year, even if Pittsburgh manages to slip into the playoffs.

Still, rumors of Pouncey’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, namely by Pro Football Focus, who has been pretty consistently down on him over the course of his entire career. Off the top of my head, I’m not certain he has ever been rated among their top 10 centers in any one season.

Bad snaps, bad season, and by the end of the year, bad knee. It is potentially another opportunity to move money around and not have to replace your longtime center, but another thing that I couldn’t predict.

Odds of departure: Medium-low at most, maybe. He signed a two-year extension in 2019 that hasn’t even kicked in yet. Not that those deals have ever stopped teams from cutting players necessarily, but Pouncey’s probably hard to replace without a replacement plan already in action and even backup B.J. Finney is a free agent.
Would he help the Chargers: From one Pouncey to the next? It is unclear how Mike Pouncey will respond to his return from the neck injury or if he’ll even be able to return at all. Scott Quessenberry was not impressive in his absence but it doesn’t mean that they’d give up on him after one season. At the moment, they do have a Pouncey and Quessenberry, so at the moment it wouldn’t seem like Maurkice is an option, unless he was moving to guard.

Cam Heyward, DE, $13.2 million cap hit, $9.5 million saved

This is technically the most they could save.

Odds of departure: Zero. But I added his money to the pile. Heyward has one year left on his deal so an extension might help them shift some of his $9.5 million 2020 base salary.

Mark Barron, LB, $8.1 million cap hit, $5.2 million saved if released

Yes, Barron is still in the NFL and actually he recorded 82 tackles and three sacks last season. After two and a half years as a safety with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and four and a half years as a linebacker with the St. Louis/LA Rams, Barron joined the Steelers on a two-year, $12 million deal. His totals seemed fine for a linebacker but his snaps went from 95% in Week 12 to 77%, then 72%, then 37%, 67%, and finally 47%.

Odds of departure: High. He seems like non-essential personnel on a team that is desperate for space and with the most money to give back to them. There’s under $3 million in dead money left if he’s cut.
Would he help the Chargers: He probably carried more value as a safety as inside linebacker types don’t seem to move the needle like they used to in a pass-happy league. He can’t be much of a priority for any defense at this point.

Vance McDonald, TE, $7.1 million cap hit, $5.6 million saved

Pittsburgh traded for tight end Nick Vannett midseason, a not-good tight end. That’s because they didn’t have good tight ends. McDonald was targeted 55 times, grabbing 38 passes for 273 yards and five yards per target. Not good.

Odds of departure: Higher than Barron, I assume. He’s not doing much and he’s carrying a good chunk of savings in his non-guaranteed contract. Maybe Vance can push for more guarantees in the next CBA!
Would he help the Chargers: No.

Anthony Chickillo, OLB, $6 million cap hit, $5 million saved

You’re probably thinking that’s a lot of money for a player you may not have heard of before. But the truth is that you’re absolutely right, it is a lot of money for Anthony Chickillo!

Odds of departure: He’s gonna be gone. The Steelers signed him to a two-year, $8 million deal last year with virtually the entire guarantee as his signing bonus. The second year was pretty fake.
Would he help the Chargers: I mean, he’s a special teams guy. And that’s fine. I imagine that Pittsburgh will re-sign him or re-negotiate because there were likely no allusions as to the type of season he’d have to have in order to be kept on his deal. He made 11 tackles on the year and missed time due to injury.

Steven Nelson, CB, $10.75 million cap hit, $5.75 million saved

He might actually be one of the better bargains in the NFL!

Odds of departure: No.
Would he help the Chargers: Oh yeah.

Alejandro Villanueva, OT, $8.9 million cap hit, $5 million saved

David DeCastro, G, $13.6 million cap hit, $7 million saved

Ramon Foster, G, $5.5 million cap hit, $4 million saved

Add it up: $13.6 for DeCastro, $11 for Pouncey, $8.3 for Villanueva, and $5.5 million for Foster. That’s $38.4 million for four offensive linemen, all of whom are over 30. Only five teams are spending more on the line and the Steelers were rated average in pass blocking and terrible in run blocking. Is that going to be the plan again in 2020? To just run it out there again, unchanged? Foster is also the team’s representative for the Player’s Association.

Odds of departure: At the moment, I think Pittsburgh will find enough space to retain Villanueva and DeCastro, still two of their best players. Foster on the other hand may not be as good and he’s also the oldest at 34. He’s likely gone.
Would Foster help the Chargers: The other two might but Foster isn’t going to improve areas that LA needs improved.

Tyson Alualu, DL, $3.6 million cap hit, $2.75 million saved

Probably one of the most forgotten-he-was-a-top-10-pick players of all-time.

Odds of departure: He seems like a fairly non-essential piece of the defense and is turning 33. I’d say even without a ton of savings, it seems likely.
Would he help the Chargers: I doubt it!

Not Bold: Release Mark Barron, Vance McDonald, Tyson Alualu, Ramon Foster, and Anthony Chickillo

Cap space: $21.5 million

There’s also talk of releasing inside linebacker Vince Williams, though that would only save them $1 million. They could do it, but consider where Williams is at in his career if they cut him to save $1 million with $6 million in dead money. Unlikely to help the Chargers.

Major free agent: Bud Dupree

The Steelers have one player to focus on and that is Dupree, the 2015 first round pick who had a career-best 11.5 sacks and 17 QB hits in 2019. They do a good job of retaining their players at this level (before they go all Antonio Brown or refuse to report like Le’Veon Bell, I guess) so I imagine they’re not going to lose Dupree. If that’s a franchise tag, then it costs them $16.2 million. There goes all the space. If they can re-sign him first, then it might be more like $7-$12 million in the first year.

Also: Javon Hargrave, Matt Feiler

The nose tackle had 60 tackles and four sacks and is also a free agent. It’s unclear how Pittsburgh would be able to keep both unless Ben and company are open to a decent amount of re-negotiation.

I’m not sure where Dupree would fit on the Chargers and if that is a priority, but Hargrave could be a huge upgrade in the middle. Should he be a free agent, that might be somewhere that LA looks and it could save them having to use their pick on Auburn DT Derrick Brown, if they want to go in another direction there.

Tackle Matt Feiler is a 27-year-old restricted free agent who may have also had a decent season and could be a target for LA, though I’m sure he’ll have an active market if the Steelers aren’t able to match an offer. Lesser talked about are corner Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis and those players could be third-wave targets.

Chargers Interest:

None of Pittsburgh’s cap casualty candidates carry significant interest for the Chargers, but if they can make a play for Feiler or wait to see if they’re unable to re-sign Hargrave, then maybe the Steelers’ financial downfall will be their ... uprise.