Steelers' Top Players to Prioritize in 2021 NFL Free Agency

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2021

Steelers' Top Players to Prioritize in 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers answered the big Ben Roethlisberger question, but questions still abound as the 2021 free-agency period begins on March 17. 

    Now that the team has confirmed their veteran quarterback is coming back for at least one more season, they have to figure out how to put a contender around him. The quarterback's new contract went a long way in helping them get to a position of financial flexibility, but there's still work to be done. 

    After starting the offseason in the red, the Steelers now have nearly $8 million of cap space. Given their own free agents that are set to hit the market, prioritizing and handing out new contracts to the right players will be key to a successful offseason. 

    The budget is going to be tight, and the 2020 campaign obviously showed shortcomings in the roster. But the Steelers are going to need to find the right mix of value to the franchise on a budget with the free agents they prioritize. 

    Here's a rundown of the players who fit that profile the best. 

G/T Matt Feiler

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Solid offensive linemen are like gold in the NFL. Building the offensive line through the draft requires a commitment to spending valuable picks on the position, and value doesn't come around often on the open market. 

    The Steelers already face an uphill battle in rebuilding their offensive line. Maurkice Pouncey's retirement means they will need a new center. Alejandro Villanueva is likely to get a contract offer the Steelers can't match because, again, offensive linemen are hard to find in free agency. 

    Whether the Steelers have to replace three linemen or two is going to depend on whether they can bring back Matt Feiler. The 28-year-old has started 29 games over the last two seasons at both guard and tackle. 

    His ability to play multiple spots on the offensive line is invaluable. He only gave up two sacks while committing two penalties last season and was PFF's 32nd-rated guard. The site projects him to earn a two-year, $12 million deal with the Jets in free agency. 

    If that's all it's going to take to bring Feiler back, the Steelers would be making a mistake not doing what it can to keep him in Pittsburgh and reduce the turnover on the offensive line. 

CB Mike Hilton

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    Justin Berl/Associated Press

    For whatever reason, the market for slot corners hasn't seemed to catch up with the vital role they play in defenses today. Playing as the nickelback for the Steelers this season, Mike Hilton saw at least 50 percent of the defensive snaps in nine of the 12 games he played in. 

    He was excellent in his role. He's useful as a blitzer (five quarterback hits and three sacks), is a willing player against the run (eight tackles for loss) and, above all, he was great in coverage. 

    Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 60.2 when targeting Hilton. He picked off three passes and defended seven more. 

    In short, he's a player who understands the Steelers' defensive system and fits perfectly in the role he's asked to play. Pro Football Focus projects him to sign a three-year, $12 million deal with the Steelers. 

    If he's willing to re-sign for that kind of money, the Steelers can't do that fast enough. A slot corner is something that's relatively easy to find on the market, but the Steelers get guaranteed continuity at a great price if they re-sign Hilton. 

DT Tyson Alualu

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The theme of retaining players who could be had for relatively cheap continues with Tyson Alualu. The nose tackle is coming off a great year in 2020, but the fact that he's headed toward his age-34 season should keep too much of a market developing for him. 

    The Steelers got great value from him last season. He was PFF's ninth-ranked interior defensive lineman and was an important piece of a dominant run defense. 

    If Pittsburgh is to be a contender in 2021 it's going to be on the back of a dominant defense and an offense that is hopefully able to achieve more balance. That means doing as much as they can to bring back the unit that was ranked second in yards allowed on a per play basis. 

    Other teams should be scared off by Alualu because of his age and lack of production prior to last season. His best season coming as he approaches his mid-30's is fairly abnormal and a sign that it may just be a product of being in Pittsburgh. 

    That makes him a perfect piece to bring back on another team-friendly contract, as the relationship has proved to be mutually beneficial. 

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