Mike Tomlin was very frank about how he regards outside linebacker Bud Dupree, an impending free agent, calling him a "priority."
That's all well and good, but the Steelers also have some other players heading to unrestricted free agency in mid-March, as well, including nose tackle Javon Hargrave and guard-center B.J. Finney.
According to Spotrac.com, Dupree's estimated value on a contract will be $16.6 million per year. Hargrave's value is similar at $14.7 million per year. And in a league starved for competent offensive linemen, Finney would get an offer of at least $5 to $6-million per year.
For the Steelers, who are estimated to have around $4 million in cap space available in 2020, that means some housekeeping will need to be done, especially if the Steelers also want to tender offers to restricted free agents such as cornerback Mike Hilton and offensive linemen Matt Feiler and Zach Banner, moves that will push the cost of those players to around $3 million each.
That might mean the Steelers have to make a decision between Dupree and Hargrave. And given that Dupree played 1,000 snaps in 2019 and Hargrave played 696 -- a career high with defensive end Stephon Tuitt out for the majority of the season -- it would seem like a no-brainer. Dupree is the more valuable player, even though the Steelers don't have a replacement on the roster for either. As we saw with Hargrave, a third-round pick in 2016, nose tackles can be found later in the draft.
Hargrave's agent also is likely to want his client to be paid in line with other pass-rushing defensive tackles instead of taking a contract in line with what other nose tackles earn, a difference of several million dollars.
Giving Dupree a multi-year deal worth $16.6 million per season might not be possible for the Steelers, considering the team will have to pick up T.J. Watt's fifth-year option for the 2021 season and then have to sign Watt to a long-term deal after that. But placing a tag on Dupree would give the team the wiggle room it would need to kick finding a replacement for Dupree down the road for another year, something that's important for a team that doesn't have a first-round draft pick in 2020.
So, how do the Steelers create the cap space they'll need?
First up is releasing some players whose contracts outweigh their effectiveness or who could see their roles reduced. That would include not picking up the 2020 option on tight end Vance McDonald ($5.672 million in savings), linebacker Mark Barron ($5.25 million), linebacker Anthony Chickillo ($5 million), guard Ramon Foster ($4 million) and punter Jordan Berry ($1.8 million).
Those five moves alone would create $21.722 million in additional cap space.
We've also seen the Steelers restructure contracts to create additional cap space. With Ben Roethlisberger soon to be 38 and coming off elbow surgery with two years remaining on his contract, the Steelers are unlikely to do anything with his contract, even though a simple restructure would create $3.72 million in cap space.
More likely candidates are cornerback Steven Nelson ($2.2 million), guard David DeCastro ($3.9 million) and Tuitt ($5.45 million).
Those moves would put the Steelers at just under $35 million in cap space, assuming the cap comes in where it is currently estimated, about $10 million more than the $188.2 million it was at in 2019.
If it comes in higher than that -- which is entirely possible -- all the better.
That $35 million wouldn't allow the Steelers to spend a bunch of money on other team's free agents, but it would certainly allow them to keep their own -- at least to a large degree, while still having enough money available to sign their 2020 draft class. The one positive about not having a first-round pick is that their rookie salary pool won't be all that expensive.
The franchise tag value for a linebacker in 2019 was $15.443 million, so Dupree could eat up at least half of that. And if the team makes restricted offers to Hilton, Feiler and Banner, that would eat up an additional $10 million, leaving the Steelers with approximately $9 million to make some other minor moves, such as re-signing Finney, special teams ace Tyler Matakevich and long-snapper Kameron Canaday since they can make those moves for long-term deals that include low 2020 salaries.
Of course, they'll still need to have a tight end, as well, after not picking up the option on McDonald. They could either simply sign him to a new, cheaper deal, or re-sign Nick Vannett, another impending free agent.
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