The Pittsburgh Steelers started the 2020 season on fire, winning 11 in a row. However, after their loss to the Washington Football Team, the Steelers limped their way into the playoffs, losing four of their final five games. Like many NFL teams, the Steelers project to be over the cap this offseason. In the first of likely many salary-cap moves, the Steelers restructured Cameron Heyward‘s contract, opening up $7.1 million in cap space.
Pending Free Agents
Even after restructuring Heyward’s contract, the Steelers project to be over the cap by $19 million. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger has a $41 million cap hit, and the Steelers have 24 players hitting the open market next month. One of them won’t be Big Ben, as his agent confirmed that Roethlisberger will be back with the Steelers in 2021. Historically, the Steelers aren’t very aggressive in free agency and tend to re-sign their players. However, given their cap situation, Steeler fans can expect the team to be quiet this offseason.
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) February 23, 2021
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver
When the Steelers traded away Antonio Brown, JuJu became the leader in the wide receiver room. He is a fan favorite and, more importantly, a favorite of Big Ben’s. The bad news for JuJu is it’s a deep wide receiver draft class, hurting his value. The good news is JuJu will likely be the best wide receiver to hit the open market. However, JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh, and Big Ben wants him back. It will take some salary-cap juggling, but unless he receives a massive offer from another team, expect JuJu back in Pittsburgh next season.
Alejandro Villanueva, Offensive Tackle
Villanueva has started all 16 games at left tackle for the last five years. However, his time in Pittsburgh has likely come to an end. Given the Steelers’ cap situation, Villanueva will find a better deal on the open market. The Steelers have more critical players to re-sign, and the draft has several potential replacement options for the soon-to-be 33-year-old tackle.
Matt Feiler, Offensive Line
Last year Feiler played on a restricted tag tender and started 13 games. He has experience at both guard and tackle during his time as a starter. While Feiler had a career-high four penalties this season, the Steelers would like to re-sign him. However, given their cap situation, he is likely to receive a better offer on the market. The Steelers are prepared to lose Feiler as they have Chukwuma Okorafor and Kevin Dotson ready to step in as starters at right tackle and left guard.
James Conner, Running Back
Since his excellent 2018 season, Conner has struggled. He has missed a third of the games over the last three seasons. Furthermore, he has failed to rush for 1,000 yards in any season. The Steelers have spent a day three pick on a running back in each of the past three drafts. Given Conner’s injury history and the Steelers’ cap situation, the only way he’s back in Pittsburgh next season is on a very team-friendly deal.
Bud Dupree, Outside Linebacker
After having the franchise tag placed on him, Dupree had played some of the best football of his career. He was on pace for a career-high 12 sacks before suffering a torn ACL in Week 12. The Steelers spent a 2020 third-round pick on Alex Highsmith. As a rookie, he produced, averaging a sack per every 18 blitz attempts. Dupree will receive a better offer on the open market than from the Steelers despite coming off a torn ACL.
Potential Cap Casualties
Given the Steelers’ cap situation, fans can expect some salary cap moves in the coming weeks. However, fans shouldn’t expect to see many contracts restructured as most of the team will be free agents after next season. The one player whose contract can be restructured is Stephon Tuitt, which would open up $4 million in cap space. With a limited number of contracts to restructure, fans can expect the Steelers to release a few veterans in the coming weeks.
Maurkice Pouncey, C ($8 Million Saved)
Earlier this offseason, Pouncey announced he was retiring from the NFL. However, there is still the issue regarding his contract. The Steelers can release him instead of putting him on the retired list, opening up the $8 million in cap space. However, if Pouncey had a change of heart and un-retire, he would be a free agent and allowed to sign wherever he wants.
Eric Ebron, TE ($6 Million Saved)
Last offseason, the Steelers signed Ebron to a two-year deal worth $12 million. However, the second year of the deal comes with an $8.5 million cap hit. If the Steelers weren’t in a bad cap situation, Ebron would be a lock to be back in 2021. Ebron has a half a million dollar roster bonus due on the fifth day of the new league year, so expect a decision to be made on him before then.
Chris Boswell, K ($1.4 Million Saved)
Over the last two seasons, Boswell has made 38 of his 41 field-goal attempts, including all 30 from inside 40 yards. Boswell has a cap hit of $4.8 million this season. If the Steelers weren’t in a tight cap situation, the thought of releasing him would be considered crazy. However, the Steelers can save $3.1 million in cap space by releasing Boswell with a post-June 1 designation. More than likely, Boswell is back with the Steelers next season but on a restructured deal.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
With their cap situation, the Steelers will have to sit out the first couple of waves of free agency. However, expect them to be heavily involved in the third wave, where veterans will sign one-year deals. While fans want the Steelers to sign J.J. Watt, it is unlikely given their cap situation. The Steelers don’t have many holes on paper, but that will change depending on who they release and lose as a free agent.
Tyler Larsen, C, Carolina Panthers
With Pouncey retiring, the Steelers need a new starting center. Larsen played in 13 games for the Panthers last season but only played seven offensive snaps. He has starting experience but isn’t likely to command much money in free agency. He would be the perfect target for the Steelers to help build up their offensive line.
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Arizona Cardinals
The Steelers have two cornerbacks heading to free agency in Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton. While the starting spots are locked in place, the Steelers will need to replace the upcoming free agents. Kirkpatrick played well in Arizona last season but likely won’t receive a new contract offer. He knows the division from his time in Cincinnati and would be a welcomed addition to the Steelers’ secondary.
Anthony Chickillo, OLB, Denver Broncos
A year ago, at this time, the Steelers released Chickillo in a salary-cutting move. However, now they could use him as a veteran behind T.J. Watt and Highsmith. With Dupree likely signing elsewhere, the Steelers will need to add some veteran depth at outside linebacker.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Eifert played in 15 games for the second season in a row in 2020. However, earlier this week, the Jaguars declined the team option in Eifert’s contract, making him a free agent. While Eifert never returned to his breakout season in 2015, he has turned into a consistent tight end. If the Steelers move on from Ebron, Eifert would be a very cheap replacement option.
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Detroit Lions
If JuJu leaves in free agency, the Steelers have several other good wide receivers in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and James Washington. However, the Steelers lack a veteran in the wide receiver room. Sanu has a total of 76 catches over the last two seasons while playing on four teams. He would sign for the veteran minimal and would be a critical presence in the locker room.
Previewing the Draft
Historically the Steelers aren’t very active during the draft. Instead of making trades, they tend to stay where they are and select the best available player. However, two years ago, they traded up in the first round for Devin Bush. Then, last year, they traded away their first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Even with Big Ben back for next season, don’t be surprised to see the Steelers move up in the first round for a quarterback.
Round 1, Pick 24: Offensive Tackle
With Roethlisberger back for next season, the Steelers’ top need is the offensive line help, especially at left tackle. The last time the Steelers spent their first-round pick on an offensive lineman was in 2012 when they selected guard David DeCastro. However, don’t be surprised if the Steelers use multiple draft picks on the offensive line this year.
Round 2, Pick 55: Cornerback
Not only do the Steelers have two cornerbacks heading to free agency this offseason, but Steven Nelson and Joe Haden are free agents after the 2021 season. Furthermore, the only cornerback on the roster under contract past next season is Justin Layne. In a division with several elite wide receivers, the Steelers need to add depth at the cornerback position.
Round 3, Pick 87: Quarterback
Even with Big Ben back next season, the Steelers have to add a quarterback during the draft. Potential day two targets include Kyle Trask from Florida, Kellen Mond from Texas A&M, and Jamie Newman from Georgia. The Steelers have to know Mason Rudolph isn’t Big Ben’s replacement and that Dwayne Haskins is a developmental project at best. With that in mind, expect them to draft a quarterback no later than the third round.
Early 2021 Expectations
After their hot start to the 2020 season, the Steelers fell apart. Then they got embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs. With Big Ben back for the 2021 season, the Steelers have a shot at making it to the Super Bowl. However, the offseason is critical as the team has to find a way to keep their core together or find adequate replacements. The Steelers are one of the best organizations in the league, so fans should expect them to put together a contending roster for the 2021 season.