Steelers' Last-Minute Guide to 2021 NFL Free Agency

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2021

Steelers' Last-Minute Guide to 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers have already had a busy offseason. Between restructuring Ben Roethlisberger's contract, signing Dwayne Haskins and some minor re-signings, general manager Kevin Colbert hasn't taken much time off since the Steelers' season ended.

    He's about to be even busier with the dawn of free agency just about upon us. The legal tampering period begins Monday, while teams are allowed to make signings official Wednesday.

    The franchise's second-half collapse in 2020, paired with a slew of expiring contracts and a tight cap situation, makes this a pivotal spring for the organization. With Roethlisberger coming back for at least one more season, they are in a tough position where they are attempting to rebuild a contender on the fly.

    The decisions they make over the coming weeks are likely to have major influence on how successful they are in that endeavor.

    Here's a quick rundown of everything you need to know before free agency.

Cap Situation

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    2021 NFL Cap: $182.5 Million

    Cap Space: $5.9 million, per Spotrac

    As bad as those numbers look, it's taken quite a bit to get them to this point. The Steelers are one of many teams that are thankful the salary cap didn't dip quite as low as some thought it might.

    With financial effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, the salary cap was expected to fall from the $198.2 million it was last season. However, the floor was set at $175 million, so the $182.5 million figure is actually a relief for teams making sacrifices to clear cap space.

    The current number already reflects the restructuring of Roethlisberger's contract. That took his cap hit from a scheduled $41 million to just $25.9 million for this season. The retirements of Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald are also included.

    The Steelers have a lot of money invested in the current roster. Roethlisberger is joined by Joe Haden ($15.6 million), Stephon Tuitt ($14.9 million), Steven Nelson ($14.4 million) and David DeCastro ($14.3 million) as the most expensive cap hits they are set to absorb.

    The work likely isn't done. Someone like Haden, who would clear $7 million in cap space, could still be a cap casualty.

Notable Free Agents

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
    • Edge Bud Dupree
    • LT Alejandro Villanueva
    • LB Avery Williamson
    • WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
    • DL Chris Wormley
    • CB Mike Hilton
    • RT Matt Feiler
    • DL Tyson Alualu
    • RB James Conner

    There's a lot of talent on this list that is going to be hard to replace. From an on-field perspective, there are many players who would undoubtedly help them win next season but aren't feasible to bring back.

    Bud Dupree is chief among those names. The pass-rusher had 19.5 sacks for Pittsburgh over the last two seasons but ended the season with a torn ACL and is likely going to cost more than the Steelers can afford to keep him.

    They've already drafted a potential replacement in Alex Highsmith, and they are likely going to have to depend on their own player development to fill some holes.

    It's a similar story for JuJu Smith-Schuster. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson have made him expendable.

    The truly intriguing names are going to be the ones who aren't likely to command huge contracts and would help. Mike Hilton has been a solid slot cornerback. Tyson Alualu is coming off one of his best years, and retaining Matt Feiler would be welcomed news.

Biggest Needs

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Center

    Maurkice Pouncey has been the center in Pittsburgh for a decade. Save the 2013 season where he only played in one game, he's started at least 13 games every season. Given the rapport he and Roethlisberger developed in that time, it's going to be important for the Steelers to find a new center who can learn the system and anchor the interior.

    The team did sign B.J. Finney already, but he didn't play a single offensive snap last year with the Bengals or Seahawks.

    The Steelers offensive line as a whole needs improvement. Overall, they were 17th in PFF's final offensive line rankings but 31st in run blocking.

               

    Offensive Tackle

    Keeping with the theme here, offensive tackle is going to be a big question mark. Alejandro Villanueva is likely to hit the market. Spotrac projects he will earn a contract worth $16.6 million a year, which is too rich for his current team.

    Matt Feiler's potential departure takes away one option. He played both guard and tackle in his time with Pittsburgh but could also be leaving. Ditto for Zach Banner. That leaves Chukwuma Okorafor as the only definite thing coming back at either tackle spot.

            

    Running Back

    The Steelers running game has been abysmal in recent years. The Steelers are putting a lot on Roethlisberger. He had the third-most passing attempts in the league despite missing a game at the end of the season.

    Part of that is the offensive line, but part of it is James Conner hasn't been explosive either. He was 30th in the league in yards after contact. Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. haven't done much to inspire confidence they can take over for the soon-to-be free agent. They both averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry.

    The Steelers are going to have to add new blood to the running back room. While this is likely to end up being in the form of a draft pick, there are still some free agents they could look at it in the third or fourth wave of signings.

Top Targets

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    Brett Carlsen/Associated Press

    When looking at free agents, the Steelers aren't going to be able to afford the names at the top of most rankings. Their best bet is going to be to take some calculated gambles. That means a lot of the names they'll be looking for are going to carry risk or little upside.

    The draft could be a place where they target their center of the future. But calling upon a rookie to set pass protections and all of the things that come with manning the middle of the line could be tough. A veteran option like Ted Karras, who played for Miami for $3 million last season, might be a good target or a deal to emulate for another veteran.

    Finding a value at tackle is going to be even more challenging. Villanueva's expected market value despite average play at the position last season is evidence of how hard it is to sign a starting quality tackle.

    The best thing the Steelers could do is sign one of their own in Zach Banner and hope he can take the next step. If they want to go the reclamation project route, James Hurst might be worth looking into.

    The running back market could be an interesting place for the Steelers. Again, the draft is a better opportunity to add a difference-maker, but there are always veterans who end up being available for bargain prices.

    Jamaal Williams is likely to be the odd man out in the Green Bay Packers backfield. Marlon Mack might be worth a look on a cheap, one-year "prove it" deal coming off an Achilles injury.

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