Projecting Contracts for JuJu Smith-Schuster, Top Steelers Free Agents

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2021

Projecting Contracts for JuJu Smith-Schuster, Top Steelers Free Agents

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers' 2020 campaign ended on a bad note, and the ensuing offseason could spell more trouble for the traditionally strong franchise. 

    Through historically strong drafting, wise spending in free agency and continuity within the organization, the franchise has avoided a losing season since 2003. This is one of those offseasons where that smart decision-making and drafting will once again be tested. 

    That's because the Steelers find themselves in a murky cap situation. With only 35 players under contract next season, Pittsburgh is nearly $22 million over the projected salary cap of $176 million, per Over the Cap.

    That means some hard decisions are coming, and the team will need to do some cap gymnastics to even get under, let alone ensure they retain the top talent that is set to hit the market. 

    While the Steelers have moves through cuts, restructures and contract extensions that could clear the space to sign some of their top free agents, some names are likely headed to their next destination. 

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    JuJu Smith-Schuster is a prime example of the kind of drafting that has made the Steelers a playoff contender on an annual basis. The team picked him in the second round, and he was the sixth receiver taken in the 2017 draft. 

    Yet, he's outproduced every single receiver taken before him in that draft. With over 3,700 receiving yards, he has nearly 1,000 more than Corey Davis who was taken fifth overall. 

    But watching a player like Smith-Schuster walk away rather than paying him the exorbitant amount he's about to see in free agency is also one of the reasons the franchise is well-run. The Steelers have uncovered gems in Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool this season as well. 

    Smith-Schuster has the ability to hit the open market when many teams who have cap space, such as the Jets, Colts and Patriots, also happen to have a need for more weapons in the passing game. 

    His Spotrac market value calculation, which factors in age, production and contracts for similar players puts him on a contract with an annual average salary of $16.1 million. His Over the Cap valuation, which just takes into consideration his play this year, has him worth $10.4 million. 

    A bidding war with a few teams looking for receivers should push the value of his contract toward Spotrac's projection if not a little further. 

    Ultimately, the Jets make the most sense as Smith-Schuster would provide a reliable option for either Sam Darnold or whichever quarterback they draft with the No. 2 pick. 

    Prediction: Smith-Schuster signs with the Jets for five years, $82 million

Edge Bud Dupree

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Bud Dupree has been a force opposite T.J. Watt for the Steelers and has put together his two best seasons in 2019 and 2020. After exploding for a career-high 11.5 sacks last season, he came back this year with eight more in 11 games. 

    Keeping him around will be difficult, though. The 27-year-old's projected market value at Spotrac is even higher than Smith-Schuster's at $18.2 million average annual salary. Pass-rushers are among the most coveted commodities in football, and Dupree will be one of the most proven ones available. 

    That's a steep price to pay for the Steelers with their cap situation. If the team believed Dupree was indispensable, they would not have applied the franchise tag on him last season. They did, though, and used a draft pick on Alex Highsmith, who played 42.6 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie. 

    Pro Football Focus recently named Highsmith their top breakout candidate on the Pittsburgh roster for 2021, citing his production in a limited role as a rookie as a sign of things to come. 

    As often as the Steelers blitz, Dupree isn't necessary for the pass rush to remain elite, but he'll be an attractive option for those looking to bolster their own pass rush. That's a profile that fits a lot of teams this offseason, and the Detroit Lions stand out as a possible destination. 

    New general manager Brad Holmes seems ready to make a splash and make the Lions roster competitive as soon as possible. 

    Prediction: Dupree signs with the Lions for four years, $68 million

LT Alejandro Villanueva

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Alejandro Villanueva has been a mainstay on the Steelers offensive line since becoming a starter in 2015. He's started in all 16 games in each of the last five seasons but will be 33 next year, which makes him an interesting free agent. 

    Tackle play in the NFL is such that competency goes a long way. Villanueva isn't an All-Pro by any stretch, but he plays well enough to ensure he isn't a liability, and the Steelers have been able to secure that level of play at a relatively good price. 

    The Army product played for cap hits of just under $8.4 million in each of the last two seasons, even though his Over the Cap valuation came in at $15 million

    If Villanueva decides it's time to move on, there will be a market for him. At 33, Jason Peters has proved older offensive tackles who can still play will find a team willing to pay them. 

    But Villanueva's age actually makes him more likely to stay in Pittsburgh. His market value, according to Spotrac, comes out at an annual average salary of $16.5 million. Unlike at receiver and outside linebacker, the Steelers don't have an exciting option waiting in the wings. 

    Finding the money for Villanueva should be a priority and signing him to a shorter deal would be a big win this offseason. 

    Prediction: Villanueva re-signs for three years, $35 million