Dupree tag, cuts, restructures in Steelers’ future

The NFLPA membership began voting on Thursday whether or not to approve a new CBA deal that would go into effect for the 2020 season.

That's the good news for NFL teams hoping for some clarity on matters involving how they will treat the 2020 season when the new league year begins March 18.

The bad news? The union won't let the NFL know until noon on March 12 whether or not the new deal has been accepted.

For the Steelers, in particular, it's significant whether the new deal is approved or not. If the new deal isn't approved, the Steelers could have as little as $2 million in available cap space, meaning they would have some serious moves to make prior to March 18 to clear enough space. They also would have to abide by the rules set forth by the league and NFLPA for teams in the final season of a CBA.

That would mean the 30 percent rule would be in effect, meaning the Steelers could not restructure deals to save as much money as they typically do when they make such moves.

If the new CBA is approved, the cap is expected to increase by as little as $5 million according to some or as much as $30 million according to others. But league minimum salaries also will increase immediately by at least $100,000 for rookies and at least $90,000 for veterans. That would eat up a large chunk of whatever cap increase the Steelers would see.

Also at issue is the fact the Steelers want to place the franchise tag on linebacker Bud Dupree. The league adjusted the franchise tag dates back two days when the NFLPA Executive Committee agreed in principle to the new CBA. That moved the deadline for teams to use the franchise tag back to March 14.

The Steelers could be very busy March 12 and 13 clearing enough cap space to use the tag on Dupree.

Current estimates on the franchise tag value for an outside linebacker puts the price tag at approximately $15.9 to $16.2 million. That means the Steelers would have to clear around $14 million in cap space to use the tag.

Releasing outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo clears $5 million of that money, while cutting guard Ramon Foster would be another $4 million in savings. With the expectation that Devin Bush will become a full-time player in 2020, the Steelers can clear more cap space by releasing either Mark Barron or Vince Williams.

Since releasing Barron saves $5.5 million compared to just $1 million in savings for releasing Williams, the former is the move to make.

That would get the Steelers to $14.5 million in savings needed to use the tag on Dupree. But it would not allow them to do anything else.

And the Steelers have three key restricted free agents -- cornerback Mike Hilton and offensive linemen Matt Feiler and Zach Banner -- they must decide whether or not tender offers at one of three levels. The lowest, the original-round tender is just $2.14 million. The second-round tender is $3.278 million, while a first-round tender would be $4.667 million.

The Steelers have typically used the second-round tender, which means to use that on all three would cost just under $10 million in cap space. Keeping two would mean the team would have to create $6.5 million in cap space.

That's why there is some serious discussion within the organization to not tender Hilton. With the release of Foster, both Feiler and Banner could wind up in the starting lineup in 2020. But the Steelers have Cameron Sutton waiting in the wings as a nickel corner, meaning Hilton might not be a luxury the team can afford.

The money saved by not offering a tender to Hilton also could be used on pending free agent offensive lineman B.J. Finney and or special teams ace Tyler Matakevich and long snapper Kameron Canaday.

But again, to make such moves, the team would need to move quickly to create cap space.

It's also why the team can't afford nose tackle Javon Hargrave, who is expected to field offers for $12 to $14-million on the open market.

A couple of simple restructures on defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt ($5.4 million), guard David DeCastro ($3.9 million) and cornerback Steven Nelson ($2.215 million) would create just over $11.5 million in cap space.

That's not a great deal of space, but it's enough to tender both Feiler and Banner and perhaps keep Finney, Matakevich and Canaday.

The Steelers also would like to keep tight end Vance McDonald, on whom they have a $5.5-million option for 2020. That is currently figured into their 2020 salary cap figure. But the team could restructure or rework that deal to gain additional cap space that might be needed to sign draft picks.

The team also would like to extend the contract of defensive lineman Cameron Heyward at some point in the offseason. But that can wait until later.

No matter what happens with the CBA, team vice president of football and business administration Omar Khan figures to be a busy guy late next week handling all of these potential moves.

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