In Pittsburgh, all eyes are on the future of Ben Roethlisberger. How will the Steelers take care of the albatross that is Big Ben's $41.25 million cap hit in 2021? Will he even be the quarterback of the franchise this fall?
These are certainly pressing questions. Indeed, Roethlisberger's immediate future is the biggest question of all for the storied franchise. But GM Kevin Colbert and his front office can walk and chew gum at the same time as they navigate the salary cap waters of 2021.
The Steelers, about $6 million over the cap as it stands right now as projected by Spotrac, created about $7 million in cap space recently by converting some of Cameron Heyward's base salary into a signing bonus. As they look for more cap relief, an extension for cornerback Steven Nelson could be best for both parties.
Nelson, 28, is entering the final year of a three-year contract worth $25.5 million that he signed in 2019. At the time, it was the largest contract the Steelers had ever given to an outside unrestricted free agent, and he's played up to it in his first two seasons with the club.
A new extension that would put Nelson into the top-10 highest-paid cornerbacks by average annual salary — Trae Waynes got a three-year, $42 million deal from the Bengals last year — which may seem counterintuitive for a team faced with figuring out who will be their quarterback and how they'll replace the nine-time Pro Bowler who snapped the ball.
But Nelson has the fourth-highest cap hit of all Steelers in 2021 at $14.42 million, and since he's in the last year of his deal there's very little wiggle room. Extending him now would lower his 2021 cap hit and free up some room (possibly $8 million or so) for the Steelers in free agency.
Want to sign JJ Watt to play with his brother? He's clearly not in a rush to sign with a team now as he tries to get the best deal possible. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will likely walk in free agency, but left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is set to be an unrestricted free agent and Pittsburgh can't stomach losing two Pro Bowl linemen in the same offseason.
A Nelson extension could also spare ILB Vince Williams or TE Eric Ebron from becoming cap casualties. Not to mention the eventual extensions for T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick that will call for cap space by September.
After some difficult years at the corner spot opposite Joe Haden, the Steelers settled the position with the signing of Nelson. In the last two years combined (regular season and postseason), Nelson has allowed a 50.3% completion rate and an opponent passer rating of 57.0, according to Tru Media stats. He's collected three interceptions, broken up 13 other passes and has just three coverage penalties.
That stacks up favorably to Haden, the bigger name of the two. In the last two years he has allowed a 48.4% completion rate and opponent passer rating of 55.5. He has four interceptions and 17 PBUs with six coverage penalties.
Extending a player like Nelson now is a two-birds, one-stone deal for Pittsburgh. The Steelers would lock up a quality corner with two seasons left in his 20s while creating much-needed cap room for this season. Or they can wait, and if he puts together a season like he has the past two years, they could lose him in unrestricted free agency in a year where the cap is healthier.
What the Steelers do with Roethlisberger will dominate the headlines out of Pittsburgh for the next three weeks and rightfully so. But no matter what, the Steelers will need to create some cap room, and extending Nelson would be a good place to begin.