Cutting several Steelers to create cap space could cause other problems

My social media timelines are filled with one common theme amongst Steelers fans: Bud Dupree is a priority to sign this offseason.

Dupree, who played on the last year of his rookie deal (extended out to a fifth-year option in 2019) is set to become a free agent after posting a breakout season. But a cash-strapped Steelers franchise doesn’t appear to have enough money under the salary cap to make bringing back Dupree a reality, at least at this point.

Regardless, head coach Mike Tomlin had said in his final press conference of season that signing Dupree is also a priority of his. That means the Steelers could undergo some changes in order to be able to pay the sizeable contract that “Big Bud” may be looking for.

That has led some fans to speculate on what appears to be the easiest option: release a bunch of plays to “save money”. While that could help the Steelers create cap space, it could also be chaotic for the team overall, as they’d have to replace the higher-priced players getting let go.

“Higher-priced” usually translates to “starter” or “significant contributor”. I don’t claim to be a salary cap wizard, but I do know one thing: letting go of the following four names each comes with its own caveats.

Here are the four names I most commonly see being let go this offseason and why it could create other issues for the Steelers if they were to do so.

Note: The figures listed below assume only 2020 numbers. Sourced from and 

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Ramon Foster

Topping the list of potential players to be let go is Foster, the Steelers full-time starting right guard since 2011.

The eleven-year vet just celebrated his 33rd birthday, which isn’t ancient for an offensive lineman but is still starting to close in on the twilight of most NFL careers. Foster is still signed through 2020, with a base salary of $4m and a dead cap of around $1.5m if the team released him this offseason: a savings of $2.5m, which is practically chump change when talking about pro football contracts.

Releasing Foster could create some issues at the guard position, as his usual replacement, B.J. Finney, is set to become a free agent and could fetch a solid contract in the vein of what the Cleveland Browns paid Chris Hubbard to be their right tackle two seasons ago. (5 years, $36.5m, with an average salary going forward of nearly $6m.)

The Steelers wouldn’t be able to afford that and have to carefully plan their next step if they were to release and replace Foster. With Finney not likely coming back, they would create two holes to save a measly $2.5m.

One solution might be moving RT Matt Feiler over to guard, since the team has Chukwarma Okorafor and Zach Banner lying in wait as developing tackles. Still, this could disrupt the continuity of what was the league’s top offensive line for years.

Foster also brings more to the table too, calling the silent snap count during away games and also as the team’s union representative.

He may still be valuable enough to not walk away from this soon without any true backup plan in place. Eating the $1.5m plus finding a replacement guard and spending less than $2.5m on that replacement (since the goal is to create space for re-signing Dupree, etc.) might not be a prudent move in 2020.

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Vance McDonald

Another headscratcher of a suggestion, McDonald is currently set to be the 14th highest-paid tight end in the league for 2020: smack dab in the middle of the NFL if you’re counting 32 starters.

Yet, fans are calling for his release citing “cap savings”.

Here’s what you need to know: McDonald could save the team around $4m with a dead cap of $1.4m, but I’m not sure why anyone would want to make this move. Among the tight ends signed in recent years who will be making a higher salary in 2020 than McDonald are:

Several of those players are on the brink of retirement or being released themselves, while several more would never be suitable replacements, for the cost, in Pittsburgh.

Also consider Jesse James, who left for the Detroit Lions last offseason, was signed to a 4-year deal worth $22.6m: his average salary increases from $3.85 next season to over $5m over each of the following three.

The remaining tight ends following McDonald in average salary include:

Several of those players are on rookie deals, meaning the Steelers would have to shell out a solid dollar to even pay a draft pick to replace McDonald, unless it was a late round, unproven player… such as Zach Gentry.

Nick Vannett, traded for at the start of the season, may hit free agency this offseason if the Steelers can’t come to terms, leaving the team with one hole to plug on the tight end depth chart: would they really want to create another when it’s obvious McDonald’s contract already provides great value to the team, and stability with a multi-year starter?

I think not…

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Mark Barron

Barron’s name is one that surfaces quite a bit already, as the 30-year-old hybrid linebacker is set have a cap hit around $8.1m this season, with a $2.8m dead cap hit if he were released.

This would create $6.75m in free space for the Steelers, based on his two-year $12m deal signed last offseason.

However, is removing Barron from the roster a smart decision?

If you’re keeping count, the Steelers might be in a position where they have to replace Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, and/or Javon Hargrave already. Releasing Barron adds a fourth name to that list, and would impact the defense.

Regardless of how you feel about 26’s play on the field, the Steelers utilized him often. Barron appeared in 15 games this season, playing 70% of the defensive snaps compared with Devin Bush, who played in all 16 and logged 82% of snaps, and Vince Williams, who played in 14 games and only garnered 36% of the defensive’s 1100 total plays.

The figures suggest that while Barron wasn’t used as an every-down linebacker, he was valued immensely in pass defense packages and seldom left the field, used in both nickel and dime subpackages.

In order to replace him, the Steelers would either need to promote a backup linebacker, such as Ulysees Gilbert, play Vince Williams more on passing downs, or recruit a capable defensive back to absorb those snaps.

While Barron would free up a ton of space, there’s a chance the Steelers are more than happy with the veteran linebacker. They could extend him this offseason instead of cutting him, creating space while giving the player security into what could be his final years as a pro. That’s the move I may opt to see, rather than simply cutting ties and leaving another gap on the defense.

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Anthony Chickillo

While we’re on the subject of players who make a decent amount of money and could provide the team savings, reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo appears to be the outlier in my defense of “creating holes” as the his contract currently stands to be the 24th highest at his position in the entire NFL for 2020 (among average payouts).

That ranks higher just behind LA Rams LB Clay Matthews, and just ahead of some players still playing on rookie deals, such as Leonard Floyd, Rashan Gary, Brian Burns, Montez Sweat, and… T.J. Watt!

I hate to say it, but this is a contract the Steelers easily walk away from, saving $3m in cap room while only leaving around $1.1m on the books in dead space. Pittsburgh has been grooming undrafted free agents Ola Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper this past season to fill in depth and any rookie they add in later rounds will come in with a lower price tag as well.

Chickillo’s other role is on special teams, but that too probably isn’t enough to save his spot. There’s a chance he doesn’t fetch a prime deal on the free agent market and could return at a lower cost, but for all intents and purposes the business of football likely sees his end in a Steelers uniform.

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One other thing we have to keep in mind: if this is all done, in theory, to retain a single player, the Steelers will also have other holes to fill on the roster because they wouldn’t be able to create any more cap space to re-sign Javon Hargrave or Mike Hilton, who are also defensive starters.

However, I do feel Dupree is the priority because he’s the one who is most irreplaceable: Hargrave’s snaps will be swallowed by Tyson Alualu or Daniel McCullers, while Mike Hilton’s replacement, Cameron Sutton, has been waiting in the wings for some time.

But how would you feel about losing Hargrave, Hilton, and several of the other players above? Leave some comments below and let’s talk about it!

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