Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and the impact to the Steelers salary cap

Two of the bigger media concerns during this NFL offseason has been how the Le’Veon Bell and the Antonio Brown situations would be resolved. The majority of the reporting on these player matters has dealt with these issues in isolation. However, this is an example of how roster construction and salary cap management must be looked at by the teams on a holistic level, not solely on a player by player level.

The reality is that by resolving both the Bell and the Brown matters in the same offseason, it was easier for the Pittsburgh Steelers to decide to trade Brown from a salary cap management perspective. Let’s explore why.

Le’Veon Bell

Bell had the franchise tag applied to him in advance of the 2018 season. This was the second consecutive season that the franchise tag was applied to Bell.

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According to reports, Bell was not happy with the long term offers that were made to him by the Steelers and ultimately decided that it was in his best interests to sit out the entirety of the 2018 season. Thus, Bell refused to sign his exclusive franchise tender last season.

By not signing, Bell passed up on the $14,544,000 he would have earned had he played. He did this, allegedly, to protect his health (considering his heavy usage) and his long term earnings potential.

See our prior summary of the Bell situation in Pittsburgh.

The full $14,544,000 that Bell would have earned if he had signed the franchise tag tender prior to the 2018 season was applied as a Steelers salary cap hold for 2018. As weeks went by during the 2018 season without Bell signing the tender, portions of this cap hold were released. Eventually, the entire cap hold of $14,544,000 was available to be used by the Steelers once the reporting deadline passed in November of 2018.

As the season was well underway by the time that it was determined that Bell wasn’t going to be playing for the Steelers in 2018, most of the significant salary cap consuming transactions had already been completed for the season.

The Steelers carried over approximately $18,200,000 in unused salary cap space from 2018 to the 2019 season. A significant portion of this carryover is based on the salary cap savings attained from Bell not signing with the team for the 2018 season (note that Bell not signing was a significant cash savings for the Steelers as well).

For our purposes, we will assume that the $14,544,000 attributable to the Bell cap hold was carried over to 2019 as permissible under the CBA.

The Steelers were within their rights to tag Bell with at least the transition tag again this offseason. However, the Steelers declined to place another tag on Bell. 

By not applying any transition or franchise tag to Bell, there would be no new cap hold applied to the Steelers salary cap for 2019.

Also, there were no dead cap money (such as prorated signing bonus) concerns with Bell as his prior agreement had expired, so Bell leaving the Steelers as a free agent would not have a detrimental impact to the Steelers 2019 salary cap.

Bell ultimately signed with the New York Jets as an unrestricted free agent.

See this article by Jason Fitzgerald for an analysis as to why not playing under the franchise tag in 2018 was not a wise decision for Bell as it relates to his long term earnings potential.

Antonio Brown

After the 2018 season, Brown requested a trade, and it seemed to only be a matter of time before the Steelers agreed to his request.

Complicating the Steelers decision to trade Brown was that not only is Brown one of the most productive wide receivers in the NFL, but his contract had been extended and renegotiated by the Steelers, providing a signing bonus and converting salary to bonuses. This would make the salary cap hit by trading Brown significant for the Steelers due to the acceleration of previously amortized (but already paid) bonus amounts.

In our prior post regarding the Brown situation with Pittsburgh, we stated that:

The cap charge to the Steelers for 2019 will be $21,120,000, as upon a trade, all prorated bonus money is escalated against the cap in the year of the trade. This would be a significant cap hit for a player no longer on the team. Here, the Steeler’s have three years of bonus money at $7,040,000 to count against the cap, thus the $21,120,000 total.

After trading Brown, no wide receiver in the NFL would have a cap hit as high as what Brown’s cap hit would be for the Steelers due to the dead money salary cap charge. And, not only would the Steelers need to absorb this salary cap hit, but, to add salt to the wound, Brown would be playing for a different team.

To add even further disincentive for the Steelers to complete a trade, Brown was selective about which teams he would play for. While the Steelers could have traded him to any team, a team could cancel the trade if the player did not report.

Brown also demanded that he receive a new contract with guaranteed money (once traded by the Steelers, only non-guaranteed salary would be remaining under the contract), further eroding his trade value.

Still, the situation between the Steelers and Brown apparently had passed the point of no return. The Steelers determined that despite the salary cap and other implications, they were going to trade Brown. Ultimately Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders for only a third round pick and a fifth round pick, much less than the anticipated return.

See here for details of the new contract that Brown signed with the Raiders. Also, as it may impact future CBA negotiations, see this article related to the NFL’s concern with how Brown was able to maneuver to get traded and get his contract renegotiated.

Steelers salary cap impact

There is no doubt that the Steelers are not a better team without Bell and Brown. But, the fact that they both departed this offseason may help the Steelers from a salary cap management standpoint.

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While the Steelers cap carryover amount into 2019 definitely could be put to a use better than an allocation to a player no longer playing for the team, the fact that Bell didn’t sign his franchise tender at any point last season allowed for the entire $14,544,000 to be returned to the Steelers salary cap space in 2018. This was a big reason why the Steelers were able to carryover roughly $18,200,000 in cap space into 2019.

The key decision that made it easier to absorb the salary cap impact of the Brown trade was not placing a franchise or transition tag on Bell for 2019.

By moving on from Bell as they did, the Steelers received no player or draft compensation in return. What the Steelers did receive though was a significant amount of cap space that would have been tied up as a cap hold had Bell been tagged.

Assuming the full $14,544,000 was included in the $18,200,000 salary cap carryover amount from 2018 to 2019 for the Steelers, the team now had this additional amount of cap space to use to resolve the Brown issue.

At the beginning of last season, it is very unlikely that the Steelers counted on having nearly this much cap space roll over into 2019. But, by having this salary cap cushion, it made it easier to absorb the $21,120,000 cap hit that would result from trading or releasing Brown.

Whether the Steelers would have decided to take a different approach with Brown had this salary cap cushion not existed may never be known. But this additional cap space has allowed the Steelers to move forward with their offseason, fully absorb the consequences into the 2019 cap, and move on from players whose relationships with the team had run its course.


Please like and share this post and leave any comments or questions below. For more information about the salary cap and the NFL CBA, please see our CBA Summary.

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