Steelers' Top Players to Avoid in 2021 NFL Free Agency

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 3, 2021

Steelers' Top Players to Avoid in 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't typically a major player in free agency, and that should mostly remain true in 2021. 

    According to Spotrac, the Steelers are among the NFL teams with the least amount of free agents on their roster. The current version of the team has just four players who were acquired on the open market. 

    The franchise hasn't become one of the most consistent in the league by making splashy signings. Instead, they focus on drafting and developing talent better than most. 

    That will pay off this offseason as they don't have the resources to be buyers in this market, even if they wanted to. As the league adjusts to the expected fall of the salary cap, the Steelers are $7.3 million over Spotrac's projected $185 million salary cap

    The Steelers have several important players set to hit the open market. They are going to have to be really selective about who they are going to target with their money when they make the moves they need to make to get under the number. 

    Some possible targets are simply not going to make sense. Whether the team already has a plan moving forward for the position or they simply don't have the money, these players should be avoided with the minimal money the team will have. 

RB James Conner

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    This one should be a no-brainer. James Conner has been a great story for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but his time in the Steel City should be coming to an end. 

    The former Pitt star should continue to be a productive back. He'll be 26 this season and has the ability to be a weapon as both a runner and a pass-catcher. He will be a key member in an NFL backfield next season. 

    That backfield just can't be Pittsburgh's. The Steelers have already spent draft capital in each of the last three years to get Jaylen Samuels, Anthony McFarland Jr. and Benny Snell Jr. Now it's time for them to trust in their ability to draft and develop talent. 

    Conner's market value as calculated by Spotrac is two years and $10.8 million or an average annual salary of $5.4 million. That's more than they'll pay for all three of those backs next season. 

    The Steelers ground game has to be better next season. They had one of the most anemic running games in the league last year, and it led to too much reliance on the aging Ben Roethlisberger

    Even if the Steelers have to use another draft pick on a running back in 2021, Conner can't be the answer for the ground game. 

OLB Bud Dupree

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    This one may be a little more controversial. It's tougher to identify and retain edge defenders who have been as productive as Dupree has been in Pittsburgh. 

    But the same basic principle applies. The Steelers have already drafted a potential replacement for Dupree, and they are going to have to trust their system to help manufacture cheaper production from the position. 

    On the surface, Dupree has been incredibly productive for Pittsburgh. Over the last two seasons, he has compiled 19.5 sacks over the course of 27 games. 

    However, that doesn't take into consideration the Steelers create pressure opportunities with a blitz-heavy scheme and offensive lines can't set the protection to Dupree with T.J. Watt coming off the opposite edge and the duo of Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward rushing the interior. 

    Throw in the fact that Dupree will be coming off a serious knee injury, and there are red flags everywhere.

    Dupree is talented, but he's in the perfect situation in Pittsburgh to shine. 

    It's the same situation that 2020 third-round pick Alex Highsmith will inherit as a second-year player. The Charlotte product didn't play a ton in his rookie season but still notched two sacks and 12 pressures in limited action while showing the ability to drop in coverage. 

    With a clear successor and the talent to make a player look better than he is, the Steelers can afford to watch another team hand Dupree big bucks. 

C Alex Mack

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    If the Steelers are to rebuild their offensive line and restore some balance to the offense, replacing the retired Maurkice Pouncey is going to be important. Looking across the names who figure to be available, veteran Alex Mack makes some sense. 

    He'll be 36 years old next season, but the Steelers appear headed toward rolling with a 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback next season, so now is not the time to get picky about age. 

    They do need to be picky about performance. And that's where Mack should be disqualified as a possible Pouncey replacement. According to Sports Info Solutions, Mack had the fifth-most blown blocks of any center in the league last season. 

    While Mack did finish 16th among all centers on PFF last season, it's an increasingly risky gamble he'll continue that level of play at his age. 

    If the Steelers are going to deal with average-to-subpar play from the position anyway they might as well either sign a veteran with fewer years, such as Ted Karras, or draft a center who is ready to play right away and deal with the bumps along the way that come with it. 

    Alabama's Landon Dickerson or Oklahoma's Creed Humphrey would both be better options to spend draft picks on than signing Mack.