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An Examination of Pittsburgh's 2021 Free Agents: Offense Edition

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Given the recent news that the NFL's salary cap could decrease next year, where do the Steelers stand in terms of players in need of new contracts?

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Earlier this week, BTSC's Flip Fisher released an article describing the possibility that the NFL could lower each team's salary cap for the 2021 season based on total revenue from 2020. Given the uncertainty surrounding whether or not fans will be allowed to attend games this fall, the NFL could be in for a huge drop in revenue, and therefore a drop in the salary cap. This change could drastically impact the Steelers given their already limited salary cap space situation. With a slew of contracts set to expire after this season, and a minimal $13.4 million available in cap space, the Steelers are certainly going to have to make some difficult decisions about who to keep, and who to let walk. Today, we will examine the offensive side of the ball and who is likely to stick around past the end of the 2020 season.

If we focus only on players likely to make the 53 man roster come September, the Steelers have six offensive players with contracts set to expire next year. These include Alejandro Villanueva, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Ryan Switzer, Matt Feiler, and Zach Banner. While some of these players are sure to command much higher salaries than others, they will all be looking a number high enough to make a dent in the Steelers salary cap. Let's take a look at each player.


Alejandro Villanueva

Villanueva is entering his final year of a 4 year, $24 million deal. While 2019 marked the first time since 2016 he missed the Pro Bowl, he still posted a solid year in which he started all 16 games and allowed just 2 sacks. Left tackle is a highly sought after position in the NFL, and given Villanueva's skill set and resume, it seems extremely unlikely that the Steelers will be able to resign him for as little as $6 million per year (his current salary). On the other hand, at age 31, Big Al won't be looking for anything near the $22 million per year contract that Laremy Tunsil recently received from the Texans. Instead, he will likely be seeking something in the mid to low teens. Whether or not the Steelers decide to pay Villanueva will likely hinge upon the development of young players like Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. If these young players fall short of expectations, the Steelers may be forced to pay Villanueva to protect an aging Ben Roethlisberger.


JuJu Smith-Schuster

The status of JuJu's contract is something that has already been heavily discussed throughout the football world. He is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and is scheduled to make just over $1 million this season. The talented young wideout is going to be looking for a huge deal that makes him one of the highest paid receivers in the league. Looking around the NFL, a new deal would likely have him earning somewhere between $15 million and $20 million per year, depending on how he performs this season. JuJu is beloved throughout the city of Pittsburgh, and has stated on numerous occasions that he would like to stay here throughout his career, but with young players like Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool on much cheaper deals, it is unclear whether the Steelers will be willing to break the bank to keep him. If he can return to his 2018 form, it would be hard to let the young superstar walk away. But if last year's struggles stick around, Smith-Schuster may need to take a team friendly deal in order to stay in Pittsburgh.


James Conner

Similar to Smith-Schuster, Conner is entering the last year of his rookie deal. He is slotted to make about $800,000 this season, and is preparing to enter a loaded running back free agent class that includes Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette, and Joe Mixon among many others. Given Conner's connections to the city of Pittsburgh, it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that he could take a team friendly deal in the range of $6-$8 million per year. It's not likely that the Steelers would break the bank and pay Conner much more than that given their handling of the Le'Veon Bell situation just two years ago. Still, keeping Conner around would ensure a veteran presence in the backfield while also giving Steelers Nation a feel good story to continue rooting for. If Conner can stay healthy in 2020, and is willing to play for a reasonable salary, his wishes of staying in Pittsburgh may just come true.


Ryan Switzer

The next three players on this list do not require as much attention because they will not be looking for salaries quite as high, but they are still worth giving a look. It's unclear whether Switzer will make the 53-man roster, but assuming he does, 2020 will be the final year on his rookie deal. After Diontae Johnson lit up the NFL with his special teams play late last season, Switzer was left without a clear role on the team. However, his close rapport with Big Ben could earn him a chance to stay in Pittsburgh as long as it is at a low price. It wouldn't be a shock to see him sign a 1 or 2 year low risk extension this offseason, but given all the young talent at the wide receiver position, Switzer may have to find a new home in 2021.


Matt Feiler

Feiler has impressed just about every time he has gotten the chance to get on the field. After signing a one year deal this past offseason worth just over $3 million, the O-lineman will be looking for a new contract in 2021. The Steelers offensive line is aging quickly, and keeping around the 27 year old Feiler for a few more years could help to fill some of the holes left by the departures of Marcus Gilbert, Ramon Foster, and potentially Alejandro Villanueva. Again, it would have to be at a reasonable price, because as we saw this offseason with B. J. Finney, the Steelers are not likely to shell out a huge contract to a player in their late 20s when they have other young stars to pay.


Zach Banner

Last, but certainly not least, is 26 year old OT Zach Banner. Used primarily in jumbo packages last year, Banner is likely to see an increase in snaps this season due to the departure of a few veteran lineman. Similar to Feiler, Banner is currently on a one year deal, and if he can take the next step and prove that he can be a reliable starter on Pittsburgh's offensive line, there is reason to believe Number 72 will continue reporting as eligible in 2021 and beyond.


Conclusions

How the Steelers handle this group of free agents will depend largely upon the changes to the salary cap, and the performance of these individuals this season. While it seems unlikely that all of these players will be able to stick around, one can only hope GM Kevin Colbert can work some magic and keep as many of them as possible.

Who do you think will be extended next offseason? And who do you think will walk in free agency? Make sure you vote in the poll and give your thoughts in the comments below.

Poll

Which current offensive player is most likely to get a new contract with the Steelers for 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Alejandro Villanueva
    (98 votes)
  • 33%
    JuJu Smith-Schuster
    (197 votes)
  • 6%
    James Conner
    (37 votes)
  • 0%
    Ryan Switzer
    (4 votes)
  • 37%
    Matt Feiler
    (221 votes)
  • 4%
    Zach Banner
    (26 votes)
583 votes total Vote Now