Is the Steelers Future the Brightest in the AFC North?

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Steelers Future
PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - JANUARY 10: Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers (center) watches action during the AFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on January 10, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

To begin an article with the above title might seem crazy. And maybe it is. The  Pittsburgh Steelers future does seem bleak if they cannot find a quarterback to replace Ben Roethlisberger. But there are some good reasons to believe that the steelers future will be just fine. And perhaps even pretty darn good.

Perhaps rightly so, the Steelers future has been called into doubt many times over this off-season. Questions of what the plan is behind Roethlisberger and how long Kevin Colbert will decide to hang around before retiring are some examples. And they are good questions, and point out some potential flaws in the Steelers plans to hoist a seventh Lombardi.

However, their future is not quite as bleak as it seems. And in fact, the Steelers might be set up to succeed better than any other team in the AFC North. That statement might seem preposterous. But it isn’t. At least, it’s less far-fetched than you might think. The Steelers future is indeed bright. It just takes a little digging to see how bright.

Is the Steelers Future the Brightest in the AFC North?

Quarterbacks aside, the Steelers are set up to achieve success in the future. They still have a young defense with stars at core positions. The offense is very young, aside from Roethlisberger. Najee Harris will be in his prime for the next couple of years if he turns out like the Steelers expect him to. But the biggest relief, and advantage that the Steelers have over the rest of the AFC North is cap space.

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The Steelers Future Involves a LOT of Cap Space

The Steelers will have roughly 76 million dollars in cap space next year. That’s good for second-best in the NFL, behind only the Indianapolis Colts. And while 2023 seems far away, at the same time it’s only two years away. And the Steelers future cap space for 2023 is… well, stupid. They will have an estimated 242 million in cap space, good for first place in the NFL. While they certainly will have spent some of that money in 2022 through contract extensions and the like, there is no way that they will have spent all of it. There is no way they could.

The reason for all the cap space is because Ben Roethlisberger probably will have retired, thus taking his 40 million dollars a year off the Steelers future salary cap. T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick will certainly garner huge extensions that will eat away some of that cap space. Watt might reset the market for edge rushers. But the Steelers will still have so much cap space that they might not even know what to do with it.

The Rest of the AFC North is not so lucky

The Bengals

While the Steelers future cap space situation looks amazing, the rest of the AFC North cannot say the same. The Cincinnati Bengals will have roughly 48 million in cap space in 2022. That’s pretty good, and they don’t have to pay Joe Burrow yet. The only big-name player whose contract ends in 2022 is Jessie Bates III. He will receive a lucrative contract but the Bengals will still have a good amount of cap space left over.

The Bengals look pretty well set up for 2023 as well with nearly 150 million in cap space. Again, there seems to be no real big-name player whose contract expires in 2023. There will probably be players that the Bengals extend, and there is a slight possibility that the Bengals jump the gun on Joe Burrow and extend him before the quarterback market sets his price even higher than what it will be. Once that happens, that Bengals cap space will always have to deal with a 40-50 million dollars a year hit, for one player. That will decimate projected cap space.

The Browns

The Cleveland Browns are the opposite of the Bengals. With a projected 6 million dollars in cap space for 2022, the Browns are going to have to do some cutting. They still need to extend Denzel Ward or let him walk. Baker Mayfield will have to be extended. Nick Chubb, Jadeveon Clowney, David Njoku, and Wyatt Teller‘s contracts will be up that year too. Chubb, Teller, Mayfield, and Ward will all demand to be paid, and they will get their big bucks.

Either from the Browns or some other team. Whatever the Browns decide to do, they will be a worse team in 2022. If they extend Mayfield, they will be selling their future. And there is no way they can sign Chubb, Ward, and Teller. Someone will have to walk out of those three. Perhaps two of those players. And probably a couple of lesser players that the Browns will no longer be able to afford. The Browns future does not look good. Even though they will have an estimated 111 million in cap space in 2023, most of that will be eaten up by contract extensions from players like Chubb, Mayfield, and whoever else the Browns decide to try and keep.

The Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens are somewhat in the middle right now compared to the Browns, Bengals, and Steelers future cap situations. The Ravens will have roughly 40 million in cap space next year. However, in 2022 Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell‘s contracts expire. The Ravens cap space will drop a little bit because of that. The biggest concern will be 2023 though. After the Ravens extend him in 2022 (which they almost certainly will do), Lamar Jackson will be taking 40-50 million a year out of the Ravens cap space. Marcus Peters and Tavon Young‘s contracts also expire at that time.

Before the Ravens can look to sign anyone else, they will have to lock up those two players. If they don’t, then they will need to draft or sign free agents to replace them. That will take anywhere from 70-80 million from the 150 million the Ravens will have in cap space in 2023. And most of that goes to Jackson, whom the Ravens will be paying for the next seven or eight years.

Where the Steelers Future is brightest

Overall the rest of the AFC North does not seem horribly set up for the next few years. Except perhaps for the Browns. But the Steelers will not have to be dealing with anything the Ravens, Browns, and Bengals will be: huge quarterback contracts. The Steelers will either have a rookie under contract or some cheap veteran. I would bet the former. The Steelers will be able to pay for and build a great team around the rookie.

For the first time in a long time, big free agent names will actually have a possibility of coming to the normally cap-strapped Steelers. The Steelers will have a young and talented defense, solid receiving room, and a number one running back. They added to their offensive line in the draft this year with two picks, and have two other young players on the line with a lot of upside.

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The biggest question is really who the Steelers quarterback is in 2022 and beyond. If it is a star rookie that they traded up for, the Steelers will be legitimate Super Bowl contenders for the next few years at least. The same cannot be said for the Browns. And even if the starter is Mason Rudolph for example, the Steelers will still be able to build a great team around him.

Finally, the question about whether Kevin Colbert will stay beyond 2022. The answer is probably not. Once the Steelers are set up for the future, Colbert will probably retire and hand the reins over to Brandon Hunt, the Steelers pro scouting coordinator, who is being set up to take Colbert’s place.

The reality of the AFC North cap situation is that the Steelers will have the most money on their hands. That puts the other teams at a disadvantage. Factor in the money that the Bengals, Browns, and Ravens will be paying their quarterbacks, and that gap grows wider. And if the Steelers can nab a star quarterback in the draft next year, then who knows how big that gap will be. I’m not saying the other teams won’t be competitive. They will be. But the Steelers future opportunities for success are much greater than the rest of the AFC North.

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