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Steelers Roster Outlook: Who should the Steelers keep for 2021?

Looking at the players that are up for free agency or potential cuts in 2021.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Steelers have a lot of contracts expiring at the end of this season. The majority are one year deals for backups, and most of the rest are rookie contracts. On that list, however are a good number of interesting choices, including some that Steeler fans likely weren’t thinking about when this season started. Let’s jump in and look at a bunch of the Steelers 2021 free agents, and discuss who they should keep, and who they should let go.

The big names

James Conner: James Conner is the Pittsburgh Steelers feature back, and is averaging a yard per carry more than Benny Snell or Anthony McFarland Jr. Conner is on pace for close to 1000 rushing yards this season. He is a three-down back, as he is solid in pass blocking and can line up as a receiver when called to. Conner is a free agent in 2021, and with his bounce back season so far, his odds of getting a second contract have improved. The depth behind him, as of yet, haven’t shown they are ready to carry the load if Conner leaves.

Bud Dupree: Bud Dupree is on pace for 13 sacks right now, and a second double-digit sack season is extremely likely. Dupree and T.J. Watt are almost a lock to be only the second pair of Steelers to have both record double-digit sacks in back-to-back seasons. Only James Harrison and Lamar Woodley have accomplished it for the Steelers, and they pulled it off three seasons in a row. It’s hard to imagine the Steelers finding the money to pay Dupree and keep their dynamic edge duo together to challenge that record.

Matt Feiler: Matt Feiler is a solid starting offensive lineman who can line up at guard or tackle. If he stays with the Steelers in 2021, it is likely that a move back to tackle will be in order. David DeCastro is under contract through next season and rookie Kevin Dotson has shown he can play already. At tackle, the Steelers have Chukwuma Okorafor signed through next season, and that is it. Feiler’s versatility is a big plus to the team in a pinch, and at 28 he is in his prime.

JuJu Smith-Schuster: The Steelers longest tenured wide receiver is 24 years old, leads his draft class in receiving yards, and has shown a consistent team first attitude and a willingness to do the dirty work to help others succeed. He’s the kind of leader you want on a football team, and he’s a dang good receiver too. Everything about him as a team mate and football player says he’s a guy you pay to keep. There are three reasons it won’t happen. The first is he’s going to draw a pretty big contract. Even with his lower stats in 2019 and 2020, Smith-Schuster would be taking a team-friendly deal if he settled for less than 10 million a year. The second is that Smith-Schuster is currently third in receiving yards behind two players that are under contract for at least two more years, the Steelers can move forward with Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson as their top 2 receivers and still have the cheapest wide receiver room in the NFL. The third reason Smith-Schuster won’t be a Steeler in 2021 is James Washington, who continues to put up good numbers when Smith-Schuster is out and Washington takes over his role in the offense. The drop in production without Smith-Schuster would be minor compared to the increase in positional spending keeping him would require.

Alejandro Villanueva: Villanueva has been a very good left tackle for years, and has quietly been doing a very good job again this year. He’s not a great run blocker, but his pass blocking continues to be very good, and on a team built around a quarterback approaching 40, that can’t be undervalued. Villanueva is 32 years old, but if Matt Feiler prices himself out of the Steelers reach and they don’t want to trust Zach Banner to be ready to start coming off of injury, Villanueva would make sense to bring back if he doesn’t retire.

Significant pieces

Tyson Alualu: A 2010 draft pick, Alualu is the second oldest player on the Steelers, behind only Ben Roethlisberger. Alualu is also playing arguably the best football of his career. The Steelers would likely have to increase his pay to keep him, but his play this season and the struggles the Steelers run defense had in his absence says he deserves it. I would rank Alualu as the second most important player to resign (behind retaining either Feiler or Villanueva) and I think the Steelers will find a way to keep him for another year or two.

Mike Hilton: Mike Hilton had a great 2019, but he exploded in 2020, especially as a blitzer. In six games Hilton has 3 sacks, 5 tackles for a loss and 5 QB hits. He also has 27 tackles and an interception. All of those are at a career high pace for the 26 year old nickel back, and even crazier, all of those stats came in the first four games of the season. Hilton was injured against Cleveland in week 6 and was out until week 11, when he returned but only recorded an assisted tackle. While Hilton established himself as the best nickel corner in the NFL, he will need to show his injury didn’t ruin what he had going to really cash in. The Steelers struggled without Hilton, and eventually brought Antoine Brooks Jr. us from the practice squad to play Hilton’s role in dime in order to regain some of the blitzing threat they lost when Hilton went down. If Hilton bounces back to his 2019 and early 2020 form, he’s a priority signing.

Robert Spillane: Spillane sat on the Steelers practice squad until an injuries got him called up to play special teams. In the 8 games he was active he led the Steelers in special teams tackles. While outside the team, the Steelers inside linebacker depth was questioned, the Steelers didn’t address it at all. We can see why now. Spillane has shown great awareness and reaction time on the field, and is particularly good as a green dog blitzer, when you rush the quarterback if your man stays in to block. He has shown great speed to the quarterback with the ability to peel off, back into coverage if his man slips out after showing that he’s going to block. He is another priority signing, and he is steadily increasing the cost to keep him as the season goes on.

Cameron Sutton: Before this season the question was “should the Steelers keep Sutton or Hilton?” This season has shown clearly that the two men are different players with different roles in the defense. Sutton is a solid tackler but he isn’t any good on blitzes and he isn’t the dynamic run defender from the slot that Hilton is. Sutton has a lot of value on the Steelers defense because of his ability to play anywhere, from outside corner to strong safety and bring starter-level coverage. With the Steelers at their best when they are free to move Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds out of deep safety into other roles without tipping their hand to the offense, Sutton’s versatility is a very valuable commodity. Sutton should be affordable enough to keep, but it’ll still be a substantial raise from his rookie contract.

Chris Wormley: The Steelers traded for Wormley, and he was expected to compete for the #3 defensive lineman role. He hasn’t done that. Injuries and lack-luster play have relegated him to the bottom of the pecking order and letting Wormley go shouldn’t be a decision the Steelers spend much time on at all.

The role players

Olasunkanmi Adeniyi: Adeniyi has become a special teams stalwart and serviceable reserve. Alex Highsmith leaped ahead of Adeniyi in the outside linebacker depth chart and while Highsmith looks like he deserves more time on the field, Adeniyi hasn’t flashed at all on defense. Special teams is a different matter, where he has three forced fumbles in the last two seasons with two recovered by the Steelers. Expect Adeniyi to stick around on a special teams based contract, especially if the Steelers lose Bud Dupree.

Marcus Allen: Allen converted from safety to dime linebacker to save his NFL career, and has played decently well in the role. He has played well on special teams as well, and his clutch recovery of a surprise onside kick in week 11 will also help his chances of returning to the Steelers. It won’t be for much, as the return of Devin Bush would relegate Allen to the bottom of the linebacker depth chart or bump him to the practice squad. Backup dime linebacker isn’t a high value position.

Zach Banner: The fan favorite Banner won the starting right tackle job in camp and held it for less than one game before going on injured reserve. In his absence Chukwuma Okorafor has locked down the right tackle spot. Banner will draw a smaller contract, likely a one-year deal, to give him a second chance at earning a bigger payday. The Steelers aren’t likely to put too much trust in Banner being a reliable starter in 2020, but if they can sign Banner to a cheaper one-year deal and keep either Feiler or Villanueva they will be in good shape at the position.

Jordan Dangerfield: The Steelers special teams captain is not a player you want to see on defense, unless it’s late and the Steelers have a big lead. On special teams he’s a leader and a consistently valuable performer. The weakness he has is he is one-dimensional and brings almost nothing of value on defense. With Antione Brooks Jr. behind him on the depth chart who brings situational value to the defense, the Steelers could move on from Dangerfield, especially if they choose to sign the next player on this list.

Sean Davis: The Steelers brought back Davis when he was cut, stating they valued his special teams ability and his ability to backup both safety spots. Davis was a solid starter before his injuries in 2019, and he hasn’t been the same player since. The value Davis brings is directly related to his injury and if the Steelers believe he can be closer to the player he was before it in 2021. If he has a bounce back, he would be very valuable as depth and in situational defense for the Steelers, if he is going to be relegated to special teams only, the Steelers would be better off with Dangerfield.

Ray-Ray McCloud: McCloud is only 24, and he’s brought a spark to the Steelers return game and received a decent amount of play time at receiver too. since week 5 he has been targeted every week and has 14 catches on the season as well as a big pass interference drawn against the Ravens in week 8 and a big run on a jet sweep in week 5 against the Eagles. If McCloud can avoid the drops and fumble problems that have hurt him in the past he should earn a new contract and a place on the Steelers roster in 2021.

Wrap up

The Steelers have a lot of free agents again in 2021, with a good number of important names on the list. The Steelers typically sign their free agents to prevent holes in the roster, and draft to add impact talent. When they bring in outside free agents, it is usually to fill holes they couldn’t with their current roster and internal free agents.

Who do you think the Steelers should prioritize signing? What players should they avoid paying? Let me know in the comments.